Why Did the Egyptian Revolution Fail?

Classless Politics traces the historical roots of Egypt's current revolutionary closure. It examines why the 2011 mass revolt found a Left in deep political crisis and the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant.

Egyptian protesters chant by a wall covered in anti-government graffiti in Tahrir Square, Cairo, June 30, 2013. (Ed Giles / Getty Images)

Hesham Sallam’s Classless Politics tackles many key questions and transformative moments in modern Egyptian history. By focusing on the authoritarian state’s response to mass movements, Sallam interrogates the changing roles of leftists and Islamists in relation to political power in Egypt. Why, for example, did the Islamist movement dominate the political arena in Egypt since the late 1970s? Why, in the era of neoliberal economic assault on the working class, did the Left fail to organize a class politics around economic disenfranchisement? And finally, did autocrats provide Islamist groups with a space for political organization and maneuver denied to those that challenged the state’s economic liberalization schemes? 

In order to understand the crisis of the Left and the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) on the eve of the 2011 revolution, Sallam goes back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. He examines how the state dealt with the two movements using both repression and co-option, and how those policies had a long-term impact on the Egyptian political arena. The story is nuanced and changing — marked by state interest and the divergent nature of the challenge at each historical point in relation to each movement. What explains the alternation in state behavior and alliance?

Shortly after the 1952 coup, there was a brief honeymoon between the Free Officers (the eclectic group of nationalist army personnel who led the coup) and the Communists and Muslim Brothers. By 1954, this ended and turned into ruthless crackdowns on members and leaders of both movements. After mass arrests and incarcerations, harrowing tales of torture and death emerged that are remembered to this day. While the MB faced nothing but repression from 1954 onward, the Communists were co-opted.

A gradual rapprochement took place between the Communists and Nasser. This was possible because Communist organizations (1) advocated “building socialism in one country” through a state capitalist mode of production; (2) prioritized the necessity of tackling the national question over the social question in the Global South; and (3) encouraged the creation of “popular fronts” with the “most progressive sections of the local bourgeoisie.”

These ideological priorities shaped how the Communist leaders dealt with Nasser. Increasingly, following the 1956 Suez War, they came to see him as the embodiment of anti-imperialism, though he initially devoted his energy to building a repressive apparatus trained and equipped by the CIA in an alliance cemented by Nasser’s overt hostility to communism.

With the 1961 “July Socialist Resolutions” that saw Nasser nationalize industries and embark on building a command economy led by the state (with a Soviet-style five-year plan), the Communists felt that the ruling regime had even gone beyond what they were campaigning for in their transitional programs. They hailed his creation of a state-capitalist order as a “socialist transformation.” This new ideological affinity took on an Orwellian dimension, as even imprisoned Communists continued to champion Nasser and chant for him while his officers were throwing them “torture parties.”

For his part, Nasser needed the Communists’ experience in organizing. He sought to create his own national ruling party, a hegemonic ideology, and political institutions capable of mobilizing the nation (and counterbalance the influence of Abdel Hakim Amer’s military). Communists were willing accomplices in erecting “Arab Socialism” as a “non-capitalist road to socialism.” Accepting to be integrated into the regime’s structures, however, had drastic, inescapable consequences that marked the Left in the following decades. It became institutionalized and regarded as part of the establishment. While the Communists did not run the state machine, or even the political organizations they helped create (like the Arab Socialist Union, the Vanguard Organization, and the Organization of Socialist Youth), they influenced them throughout the 1960s. They helped put together those structures, ran political education for cadres, and drafted doctrines for Nasser’s Arab Socialism.

Such integration had political costs. In the Egyptian 1968 youth rebellion, which continued throughout the 1970s, veteran Communists could not relate to the movement, and the new radicals on the campuses looked at them with suspicion as state lackeys rather than comrades.

My late father, for example, came from a working-class family in the Nile Delta city of Tanta. A staunch believer in Nasser, he joined the Organization of Socialist Youth from early on and quickly ascended its ranks. Disillusioned after the 1967 defeat, he was radicalized further to the left and started looking for communist organizations to join, but could not find any because they were all dissolved. The Arab Socialist Union officials who tried to persuade him not to resign were in fact leading communist intellectuals at the time, such as Fouad Morsi. This incident, my father used to recall, was a sign of how inept those Communists were in the eyes of the newly radicalized youth.

The alliance between the Communists and Nasserists changed when Sadat rose to power in 1970. He wasted no time in embarking on a “de-Nasserification” process, which included dismantling the state social contract that, under Nasser, provided social and economic welfare for the masses in exchange for his monopoly political power. For Sadat, the economic part of this arrangement was too costly and could not be sustained.

As Sadat prepared to move to the US camp in the Cold War, scrap Nasser’s social deal, dismantle the welfare state, and open up the economy to foreign investment, he had to tackle the Left’s political position. To roll back Nasserism and institute neoliberal policies, he started to allow and actively encourage the growth of the MB. He simultaneously sought to crush his leftist adversaries and divert struggle and public debate away from class and toward more identity-based fights along the secular-religious divide.

As Sadat gave Islamists breathing space, he either co-opted sections of the Left by allowing them a legal framework to operate under the banner of al-Tagammu Party or ruthlessly targeted them, such as with any dissident leftists and small radical groups. This hampered the growth and building capacity of the Left in the long term, as Sallam rightly argues.

In this way, Sadat created his own Frankenstein. Islamists had avoided criticism of the regime in general and its new economic policies more specifically, and they managed to protect their organizational autonomy from state control. As they grew larger, became bolder, and filled the vacuum left behind by the active suppression of the Left, the Islamists inevitably clashed with the regime over a variety of issues — most important, the unpopular peace treaty with Israel.

Only then did Sadat turn his wrath on the Islamists as well, and the result was his own assassination at their hands. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, would continue with the same political parameters — a co-opted legal left and a mammoth MB mobilizing almost exclusively around conservative moralist issues.

Mubarak’s crackdown on the jihadis, however, soon turned into a massive crackdown on Islamists of all shades, including the MB in the mid-1990s. The repression, Sallam explains, had an impact on the group’s internal equilibrium, favoring the tendency of the “guardianists,” who were conservative and obsessed with organizational cohesion, over the “institutionalists,” who advocated open reformist political work. Sallam follows the trajectory of the two camps into the post-2011 period in detail, mapping who’s who.

Meanwhile, the Left, without a mass political movement to lead or organize, became obsessed with culture rather than class war, tailing the state in its fight against “terrorists” and “religious fascists.” This alienated the Left from exactly the social groups that it historically needed to challenge economic and social inequality — a recipe for political irrelevance.

On the eve of the revolution of January 25, 2011, the Tagammu Party refused to endorse calls for protests. Other leftist groups, such as the Revolutionary Socialists, took part in organizing the revolt, but were too small to provide leadership for the uprising.

Though its young activists were central to the street mobilizations, the Egyptian communist left generally performed badly in post-2011 political battles, such as the constitutional referendums and presidential and parliamentary elections.

The left-leaning Nasserists, represented by Hamdeen Sabbahi, performed relatively better in the presidential race. Yet both the Nasserist and communist left ended up rallying behind the military junta in its “war on religious fascism” and endorsing the 2013 coup, which translated into a full counterrevolutionary onslaught.

Sallam’s seminal work points to the impact of Soviet policy on Egyptian Communism, but interestingly the word “Stalinism” is not mentioned once in the book despite its decisive impact (and detrimental effect) on it. While Sallam does mention the “stages theory” and other Stalinist ideological justifications put forward by Egyptian Communists, he presents these as part of a “transformation” over time that somehow leads the Communists to settle with nationalism over socialism. This obscures the cause of policy changes.

By the time the Communist “second wave” started, the Soviet Union had complete hegemony over the international movement, and Stalin cynically used Communist parties around the world to serve Soviet foreign policy interests, fashioning them with political positions and the political jargon necessary to justify those interests. In fact, Egyptian Communists were heavily Stalinized from the start, and nationalism was part of that package. Communism for them had become a national liberation ideology and a patriotic project. This partially explains the ease with which notable Marxist intellectuals like Muhammad Emara, Adel Hussein, and Abdel Wahab al-Messiri could move from communism to Nasserism and finally to Islamist populism. From a class perspective, the essence is the same: a middle-class project geared toward nationalist, state-led development.

This Stalinist distortion of Egyptian communism also meant that those leftist groups that grew outside the traditional Communist Party were more or less advocating a radical version of the exact same policies as Nasser. Other sources of inspiration, like China or Cuba, were effectively different variations of the same state-capitalist order. The left terrain had thus been set.

To understand this, one needs to attend to both regional and global contexts systematically and integrate that into the analysis of the Egyptian left. Indeed, the dissolution of the Egyptian Communists in 1965 and their integration into Nasserism was an extreme form of the Soviet “popular front” strategy whereby Communists in the Global South would ally themselves with the most progressive sections of the local bourgeoisie, ceding their organizational autonomy. While the Sudanese Communists did not dissolve themselves, they did follow the path of their comrades to the north and enter into a popular front with Jaafar Nimeiry and his Free Officers in 1969 — before he finished them off. This experience was replicated throughout the region and in other parts of the world. While local and specific factors need to be identified, the problem was global.

Attending to class would also have benefited Sallam in explaining the internal conflict in the MB between the conservatives and the reformists — or as he puts it, the “guardianists” and the “institutionalists” — he captures so brilliantly. The MB is a multiclass organization. What this has actually meant is that, at every twist and turn in its political development, the leadership has had to consider class as a decisive issue, not just the conservative-reformist divide. Any program or set of slogans had to somehow address the competing interests of different classes within the organization. This partially explains why the group never really managed to put forward a coherent social and economic program.

For example, during Mohamed Morsi’s short time in office, I came across MB members who were part of the working class and were victimized in strikes, and this was a point of departure for them from the group. Not all necessarily converted to Marxism, but I saw at least more openness to discussing socialist ideas and more willingness on their part to approach secular socialists like myself and my comrades to try to coordinate action. This goes to show, even when the MB leadership is embroiled in the culture wars, class dynamics are impactful.

About the Author

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist. He is currently based in Berlin, where he is doing his PhD on the Egyptian security services and their role in the counterrevolution.