Egypt: State in flux

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The waves of strikes that have swept Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak have fractured the state machine, giving a boost to reformist forces. Anne Alexander looks at how revolutionaries should relate to these new forces, especially those emerging around Hamdeen Sabahi.

The stifling heat of summer makes Cairo hell for its poorest inhabitants. The rich turn up their air conditioners, while hundreds of thousands in the "informal" neighbourhoods suffer water shortages and power cuts. This year the people of the Saft al-Laban area took matters into their own hands. On 22 July, after weeks without water, they stormed the Giza governorate buildings and locked the gates. On 11 August they took their protests to the Ministry of Water and Sanitation. At one point protesters cornered the minister, putting down a glass of filthy brown water in front of him. "This is what you expect us to give our children - now it's your turn to drink it." Within hours Egypt's newly-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was in emergency talks about the issue. By the next morning the Water Ministry spokesmen told the media that water was flowing again in Saft al-Laban.

The forcible entry of Saft al-Laban's residents into the corridors of power came at the precise moment another drama was unfolding. As he listened to why the Water Ministry had been unable to turn on the taps in Saft al-Laban, Morsi's mind may well have been focused on other issues: in particular the statement announcing Field Marshal Tantawi's retirement which his spokesman would read out to a stunned TV audience the following day.

Morsi's move against Tantawi, and other leading figures in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who had ruled Egypt since Mubarak's fall, followed the deaths of 16 soldiers in an attack on an Egyptian base in Sinai, apparently by armed Islamists. The changing of the guard at the top was, no doubt, supported within the military establishment itself. Tantawi's successor is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, head of Military Intelligence, whose first acts included the promotion of the generals immediately below the commanders of Tantawi's generation.

The everyday struggles of Saft al-Laban's residents over their access to drinking water and the high political drama of Tantawi's retirement are tightly interwoven by the way the revolutionary process is working itself out within the body of the state. To grasp this we have to understand the state in more than one dimension. The first of these dimensions is the state as a set of specific institutions, the purpose of which is to perpetuate the rule of one class by another.

A military-bureaucratic machine
Writing in 1871, Marx referred to the state as a "military-bureaucratic machine". This label is particularly apt for the current Egyptian state. During the 18 months he was in power, Tantawi appointed cabinets stuffed with ministers from pre-revolutionary governments. Unsurprisingly, he made no move to ease his own colleagues in SCAF into retirement. The one area of the state where Mubarak's generals allowed significant change was parliament. The formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood swept the board in the parliamentary elections, with the rival Islamist parties of the Salafist movement in second place. Yet the scale of continued mobilisation from below, in the form of successive waves of street demonstrations and strikes, undermined Tantawi's strategy.

This relates to the second dimension of the state: it is "the product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms", as Lenin puts it. At one level this phrase refers to the origins of the state, which appears as a power standing over society in order to regulate class conflicts and ensure they are resolved in the interests of the ruling class. At another level it indicates that class conflicts are also played out within the state.

Revolutions in the modern world always involve a war by the state against itself. Great revolutions force the decomposition of the state into hostile classes, and require its rebuilding. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the first in which the proletarian parts of the state (rank and file soldiers, workers in state enterprises and the lower ranks of the government bureaucracy) were able not only to break down the existing state, but to build the institutions of their own alternative government in the soviets together with workers in private industry and peasants. Usually, of course, the state only partly decomposes. Some of its lower layers rise to the top, or its institutions expand outwards to absorb "new blood", but large parts of the old structures remain intact.

The waves of strikes which have rocked Egypt have been driven by rebellion at the lowest levels of the state. In September 2012 these included strikes and protests by teachers, civil servants, police corporals, transport workers, and manual workers in at least 20 public universities. Their demands included the sacking of all heads of universities and replacements to be elected by all university staff.

The suppleness of the state in revolution, as it expands outwards in an effort to contain the boiling energies within, increases the attractiveness of reformism as a strategy. For reformists, the mass struggle from below simply provides a means to claw open the locked rooms of the state and insert themselves into office. Lenin argued in 1917 that workers could not change the state this way, as even a democratic republic would still remain a capitalist state, the purpose of which was to guarantee the best conditions for their exploitation.

But what strategy should workers follow, if they are not yet strong enough to overcome the existing state on their own? Two years after the 1848 revolutions, Marx argued that revolutionary workers faced just such a dilemma. Their former allies among the liberal bourgeoisie had done a deal with the old ruling class. More radical layers of the petty bourgeoisie emerged at the vanguard of the struggle for democracy, but Marx warned that they too could not be trusted to serve workers' interests.

It was crucial, he argued, that until workers had built their own organisation and consciousness, to work both with and against these democratic reformists: "the relationship of the revolutionary workers' party to the petty bourgeois democrats is this: it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position."

Reformist forces
In Egypt today revolutionary activists lack strong mass organisation and have yet to convince the majority of the working class and much wider layers of the poor of the need for a new revolution. It is not possible to win this argument by standing aside from the battles between the reformists and the old regime. Nor can such debates be won if revolutionaries fail to distinguish between different reformist forces and do not take sides in struggles between them. The rising profile of Hamdeen Sabahi, who won five million votes during the presidential elections, underlines this point. Sabahi is a Nasserist, who stands firmly by the legacy of the July 1952 revolution which created the very same state structures that underpinned Mubarak's regime.

Yet as Sameh Naguib of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists pointed out in a meeting this June, focusing on this aspect of Sabahi's politics in isolation can lead to the wrong conclusions. "In terms of the people who voted for Hamdeen Sabahi, the most important thing isn't that these are people who are going to be revolutionaries tomorrow. The point is that they represent a very large section of the working class, who stand with the revolution, who don't trust the Brotherhood and are looking for an alternative. In response to those who say that these people have just got Nasser in their heads, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Why? Because Nasser, in the heads of working class people, means workers' rights, means nationalisation, means government housing, education, many fundamental things. These are positive things and this means people are moving to the left."

The distribution of Sabahi's vote in the elections suggests that large numbers of workers are looking to him because he appears to stand for many of the demands raised by the mass strikes during the last six years. During these strikes workers have largely been trying to turn back the neoliberal assault on the benefits which Nasserism offered to the working class, particularly in relation to job security and the provision of welfare, education and healthcare through the state. Sabahi's vote provided the first evidence that the left (in the broadest sense) can construct an alternative to the neoliberal policies of the Muslim Brotherhood on the terrain of national politics. Until the first round of the presidential elections this space was largely left open to the Salafists, some of whom have proposed that the redistribution of state resources could offer an alternative to Egypt's application for an IMF loan.

Working with reformists does not mean adopting their attitude to the state, however. Revolutionaries can campaign for reformist candidates, form electoral alliances with them or join broad left wing parties without compromising their rejection of reformism.

Nor does the question of reformism only raise itself in relation to elections. Returning to the events of 11-12 August we can see that both reformist and revolutionary conclusions can be drawn. Did the water start flowing again because the appeals of Saft al-Laban's residents finally reached someone in the state who was prepared to act on their behalf? Or did their collective self-organisation and the militancy of their protests shift both the old and new parts of the state to solve the problem?

Differing conclusions
Activists from Saft al-Laban were discussing very similar questions in relation to the events of 12 August. As the news of Tantawi's departure broke, the administrator of the "Youth of Saft al-Laban are One Hand" Facebook page, who, until the day before, had been focused on mobilising for the water protests, posted a comment: "The decisions which President Morsi took are a 'Night of the Long Knives' and the end of the army's state." Another contributor was more cautious: "These are decisions which all revolutionaries have been demanding. They are the first step towards Egypt's independence from military rule and the beginning of building a genuine civil democratic state."

Maintaining and developing ordinary people's belief in their own collective power remains a crucial task, even after more than 18 months of revolution. However, it is the organised working class which represents the force best able to carry the Egyptian Revolution forward. Workers' ability to paralyse the mechanisms of government, as the recent strikes demonstrate, means that they are the only group among the poor with the social coherence to take on the state. But as Marx put it back in 1850, workers themselves "must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution."