Bread, Freedom, Social Justice

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This much-anticipated and authoritative book by Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny tracks the role of the Egyptian working class movements in the 2011 Revolution. It is a closely argued, detailed and thorough examination of the dynamics of the revolution and the potential for workers to make a profound change in Egyptian society.

Alexander and Bassiouny begin with the definition of the Egyptian military — not a neutral body standing above society mediating between different interests, nor is it simply a charmed circle of personalities, but a brutal agent of class rule.

They argue that the development of the Egyptian state is intertwined with the end of colonial rule and the advent of modern capitalism.

By locating the state in class relations their analysis marks a fundamental break from the standard perception of Egypt, and the centrality of the military within it, as a progressive force, or one that can play a progressive role.

The second major theme is the transformation of the state from the Nasser era — where the state was used to “hothouse” the development of native capitalism, as well as contain the revolutionary wave that brought the Free Officers to power in 1952 — to the strategic neoliberal realignment under his successors.

The “retreat of the state” after Nasser was simply the abandonment of an ideology which “projected its key role as a guarantor of a minimum standard of social equity”. Far from a retreat, as claimed by the proponents of neoliberalism, its power grew.

It was the policies of the Infitah (neoliberal reforms) instituted by Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak after him, that underpinned the development of the conditions that led to the 25 January Revolution.

The experience of neoliberalism was not full privatisation, but the transfer of publicly owned industries to the military sector.

The growth in the power of the military, and its subsequent role in the 30 June counter-revolution, reflects its deep interests in rescuing Egyptian capitalism from the revolutionary movement.

They argue that the revolution grew out of the rising power of Egyptian workers, and the slogan “Bread, freedom and social justice” expressed the “social and democratic souls of the revolution” and the desire to create a “Social Republic”.

The book also deals in detail with the role of the Islamists and secular currents. They argue that the Muslim Brotherhood was both strong and weak — strong enough to divert the energy of the revolution, but too weak to bring any real fundamental change.

At the heart of the book is the role of the independent union movement. They track its dramatic rise and speedy co-option into a bureaucracy, with a leading trade union leader joining the military government.

This book is steeped in Marxist analysis. Its main objective is not a commentary on the revolution, but an examination of its “social soul”. Alexander and Bassiouny have brought their deep knowledge of Egypt, its history and social classes to reveal the motor of the revolution. This is a must read book for socialists.