Parliament and revolution: Remembrance of things past

Mona Anis , Thursday 26 Jan 2012

What can history tell us about parliamentary elections held during periods of revolutionary upheaval?

I have to admit to having been strongly moved by the opening session of the new People's Assembly (the lower chamber of the Egyptian parliament), which I sat watching on television for almost 12 hours on Monday 23 January. Glued to the television screen, I took in the historic moment: conflicting thoughts crowding my head, bringing with them all kinds of memories and sending me off "in search of things past".

 The first thing I found myself doing after the parliamentary session ended was to search frantically for an old pamphlet by Lenin. I could never have imagined that the Marxist books of my formative years would acquire such urgency after all those years. Then again, neither would I have foreseen that – a full 40 years after thousands of us student activists of the early 1970s occupied Tahrir Square for one day – a far larger occupation of the same square lasting 18 days would succeed in toppling the president of the republic, replacing the old parliament with one in which the Muslim Brothers, the main political adversaries to the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, filled almost half of the seats, including that of the Speaker of the House.

The reason I was looking for Lenin’s pamphlet ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder was because I had been reminded of it by a friend. We were talking about the scepticism of some young revolutionaries, very similar to that of their 1970s counterparts, regarding the point of participating in parliamentary elections during revolutionary times. This same question had been posed by the German revolutionaries in 1918: both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, then leaders of the German Communist Party, had argued for participation in the elections on the grounds that the parliamentary platform could be used to promote revolutionary ideas among the wider population.
In the event, however, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were defeated, and the Party decided to boycott the elections. It was in this context that Lenin accused those who had argued against participating in bourgeois parliaments of suffering from “Left Infantile Disorder”.

Lenin wrote: “It is with the utmost contempt ― and the utmost levity ― that the German ‘Left’ Communists reply to the question of ‘should we participate in bourgeois revolutions’ in the negative. We read ‘...all reversions to parliamentary forms of struggle, which have become historically obsolete, must be emphatically rejected.’” Commenting on this, Lenin asks: “How can one speak of ‘reversion’? Is this not an empty phrase? Parliamentarianism has become ‘historically obsolete’? That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared ― and with full justice ― to be ‘historically obsolete’ many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism.”

I am not sure how persuasive Lenin might be to Egypt's young radicals today, though back in the early 70s we used to quote from his work in order to support or refute arguments about how to act in revolutionary periods. I am not concerned here with trying to prove or disprove any point of view. Instead, I am merely trying to register the fact that the argument about whether or not to participate in a parliament in which the balance of power has been tipped against the revolutionary forces is a century old and perhaps even older. Parliaments that are elected following great political and social upheavals are problematic, and in the Egyptian case they have been ill-fated.

There have been at least two such parliaments in recent Egyptian history: the first parliament that followed the 1919 Revolution and the first that followed the 1952 Free Officers’ movement which overthrew the monarchy and established the republic in 1953. Each of these parliaments, elected in 1924 and 1957, respectively, were dissolved just a few months after they convened. The 1924 parliament, elected in January, was dissolved in November of the same year, while Egypt's first parliament under the republic convened in July 1957 and was dissolved in February of the following year.

I have childhood memories of the 1957 parliamentary elections, since my father, then a member of the Egyptian Communist Party, was running as a candidate for the East Cairo Waili constituency, where he had grown up and where most of his family lived. Initially, the elections were scheduled for November 1956, following the promulgation of the 1956 Constitution by referendum in June that year. However, political developments beginning with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in July 1956 and ending with the Suez War in October of the same year postponed the elections to the following year. When the elections were finally held in July 1957, the Nasserist regime had gained in popularity, and many politicians who had previously mistrusted it were now willing to participate in trying to restore democracy to Egypt after the regime’s first few turbulent years.

My father did not enjoy the support of the regime, which supported a worker from the pro-regime Trade Union Federation instead, but he was confident he could run a successful campaign since he was well known in the constituency and enjoyed the support of many intellectuals who worked actively in his campaign. He got the most votes in the first round of the elections, though a second round of run-offs was to take place. It was during that second round that I had my first taste of parliamentary democracy in Egypt.

Having been taken by my mother to attend my father's last rally before election day, and while seated in a huge makeshift tent erected specially for the occasion in what was the neighbourhood’s main vegetable market, I witnessed soldiers on horseback, wielding whips and sticks, beating people up and dispersing them in the most brutal way. I can recall running to take shelter with my mother in a nearby shop, which pulled down its steel grill as soon as we had entered. Two days later, and as the counting of the votes took place, most of the votes which my father had scored in the first round of the elections had evaporated, including those of his relatives and supporters. The following year he was sent to prison, where he spent five-and-a-half years, despite being given a not guilty verdict by the military tribunal that had tried him along with hundreds of other communists.

As I end this column, it occurs to me that while my search for the Lenin pamphlet might have been motivated by the desire to clarify the issue of parliamentary participation during revolutionary times, in a more subtle way it was a sublimated longing to communicate with my father, who passed away three years ago. Perhaps he had been persuaded of the validity of running in the 1957 elections by the arguments of communist leaders such as Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin? Perhaps, seeing a parliamentary seat as a useful platform from which to advocate revolutionary policies among the wider population, my father would even have approved of running in the present elections.

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