A short critique of revolutionary comrades

Samer Soliman , Friday 13 Jan 2012

The 1st anniversary of Egypt's revolution is a good opportunity for introspection and soul-searching by those who participated in it

 The criticism I will make about the positions and ideas of some revolutionary comrades is well-intentioned and not born of malice. It aims to improve the performance of reformist and revolutionary trends to overcome unnecessary divisions, in order to reach the common goal of establishing a state rooted in freedom, social justice, dignity and humanity.

The following are four critiques of some positions adopted by comrades.

First, utter hostility towards political parties and organising is a critical mistake. One of the definitions of politics is managing and organising common and collective interests. You are responsible to run your household, but managing the entire building is not your responsibility alone but that of the association of landlords or tenants, etc. This is politics.

Politics is nothing more than a group activity aimed at structuring matters of state and society, and therefore anyone who opposes organising, without realising it, is opposing politics. If you refuse to organise yourself into a political party or group, how can you organise society and state?

If you accept organising into smaller groups but refuse political parties altogether, you are also at odds with the politics that manage state institutions, and, therefore, will end up remaining on the periphery under the pretext of maintaining “revolutionary purity” far from party manoeuvring.

Yes, politics is not only based on party organisation but also on non-party organisations, such as lobby groups – but the latter are not a substitute for the former. In fact, lobbyists do not operate successfully except in tandem – and in cooperation with – political parties, since one of lobbyists’ key targets are political parties.

Environmental groups, for example, create policies to limit pollution by contacting political parties, cooperating with them and supporting them in proportion to how much these parties advocate environmental protection programmes. Lobby groups do not reach power, but influence it, such as a union defending the rights of workers in a certain profession, etc.

What is important is that members of each of these types of organisations realise that they cannot function without the other. Real change is not achieved except through compatibility and alliances between the different types of organisations.

Second, revolution does not mean the immediate toppling of the regime and revolution is not adverse to reform. A person does not usually rebel against the ruling class and overthrow it except after exhausting all other means of gradual reform and participating in smaller, partial revolutions. As the proverb goes, revolution is merely failed reform. There is no shortcut to a comprehensive revolution; in order for people to revolt against the ruling class, they must take the long road of reform and rebellions against minor authority.

A true revolutionary is one who walks with the people when reform is possible, and it is his duty to stay among them even when he is convinced that the chances of reform are slim. Only when you are among the people during reform and minor revolutions are you able to usher in a comprehensive revolution and convince others that gradual reform is not the only solution.

A revolutionary must sustain his credibility as he takes part in revolution, and should not demand the removal of the head of the regime without a good understanding of the true balance of power on the ground. Therefore, anyone who is calling for a second revolution on 25 January, 2012, to overthrow the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) refuses to recognise that there is an emerging parliament that has a large degree of legitimacy to represent the people, and that many people are counting on that parliament and the new government that winning parties will form.

If SCAF does not hand over power to either parliament or the new cabinet or the next president, and if the people find out that elected institutions took over power but their performance is below expectations, this is when they can call for the overthrow of the head of the regime. Before that point, however, battling, protesting and going on strike should target partial victories and specific demands – not the toppling of the head of the regime.

A true revolutionary is only one step – and no more – ahead of everyone else, because if they stride too far ahead they will turn around in the end and find themselves alone in a standoff with the powers-that-be. It will do society no good to be a lonely hero squaring off with the authorities. In all cases, before deposing the regime, you must also think hard about the power that will replace those on the way out.

Political power is nothing more than organising individuals and groups. The SCAF only assumed power after the elimination of Mubarak, the police apparatus and the NDP because they were at the top of a large cohesive structure that is spread across Egypt, namely, the army. If we overthrow the SCAF, what is the powerful cohesive organisation that is found everywhere in the country that will take over? I beg you not to suggest “honourable officers” who are not members of SCAF – enough military coups and military rule.

Third, seniors and the elderly are not the enemy. The worst step a revolution can take is to lose potential allies or make enemies of those who are in fact its supporters. One of the symptoms of dictatorship in Egypt was the old age of the ruling class, including Hosni Mubarak, Fathi Sorour, Safwat El-Sharif, Omar Suleiman, Hussein Tantawi, etc. But the age of the ruling elite was only one symptom of the ailment and not the disease itself. Like the fever that accompanies the flu, the old age of rulers is not the real cause of the illness, but only a symptom.

Proof of this is that the military dictatorship in Egypt began young. Nasser and his comrades reached power in their early 30s, while the Free Officers were criticised as “a bunch of kids.” As time passed, and the same group remained in power with minor changes, the average age of the ruling class rose – something that the former regime in its last days tried to address by rallying youth groups around Gamal Mubarak, “the leader of the future generation.”

If Gamal Mubarak had succeeded in replacing his father, and if he had exchanged some of the ancient senior leadership with younger ones, that would not have changed the reality of despotism in Egypt. The corrupt despotic clique that controls Egypt is a multi-generational group that includes seniors, the elderly, young people and, perhaps, even children because their offspring are brought up to despise the common man and feel superior.

The trend that wants to remove this group and reach power must also be multi-generational. Look around you – if you find that the members of your organisation or group are all from one generation, then you are on the wrong path because this means that your group is not representative of the diversity of your society. Know that you are already defeated because groups that represent only one generation are poor and cannot make use of the diversity of skills and resources that a multi-generational group can take advantage of.

Fourth, construction cannot wait until all of the demolition work is done – the economy, for example, cannot be postponed until the revolution is complete. The Egyptian revolution is long and open-ended, with many ebbs and flows; overthrowing the head of the regime and putting pressure on the new leaders. It is only natural that building institutions should proceed in tandem with revolutionary action and strikes.

I was very surprised when I asked someone why he did not join a political party and he responded: “We are not completely done with dismantling the former regime.” Aren’t political parties – some of them, anyway – tools for demolishing the previous regime?

Power is not a building that must be entirely torn down before a new regime can be constructed in its place. Alternative power is born in society and grows within it to influence and control areas in which the incumbent regime is absent. Once it is able to do this, removing the incumbent is only a matter of time, and taking control of the state is almost guaranteed.

One of the most important sectors for the new power to be active in is the economy, which some revolutionaries view with great triviality and opportunism by waving banners in Tahrir Square about a minimum wage in hopes of attracting workers and civil servants to join their strike, and hence topple the SCAF. But this is not how social classes and groups operate. Strikes alone do not bring down a regime, but civil disobedience does – and this cannot be achieved without better organisation of the working and middle classes.

The glorious January revolution removed the grip of the regime and its institutions over unions after six decades, and the fruits of this historic victory will not be felt for several more years because the old unions have not been reformed yet and the new syndicates need many more years to gain strength.

Egypt will not make the transition into political and social democracy except through years of struggle in which construction and demolition, reform and revolution, calm institutional action along with frenzied revolution action take place side by side.

It is natural that some of us prefer demolition to construction, reform to revolution, or frenzied action to measured institutional progress. But we must not make the mistake of feeling superior and eschewing our natural allies and comrades just because they are operating in another realm or taking another path to reach the same objective.

The goal is one: the establishment of a state founded on freedom, social justice, dignity and humanity.

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