Revolution in permanence

As vice-president Omar Suleiman threatens an army coup, the workers needs to push the democratic revolution further and further, deeper and deeper, writes Eddie Ford

So far, the various attempts by the Egyptian regime - and imperialism - to impose 'stability' have ended in failure. Indeed, divisions at the top grow day by day, and not only in Egypt. On the one hand, US vice-president Joe Biden has demanded an "immediate" end to emergency laws and a "prompt, meaningful, peaceful and legitimate" transition. On the other, Omar Suleiman, the hated Egyptian vice-president and former secret police chief, warns demonstrators to go home or else face the threat of an army "coup".

But demonstrations and protests keep growing. Millions have come out in Cairo and other cities. Tahrir Square is now a parliament of the people. Fear is melting away and freedom has broken out. Meanwhile the working class has begun to move. Not only strikes, but sit-downs and occupations.

The masses want real regime change and democracy, not the old system left in power, albeit with some faces removed and the promise of constitutional reform somewhere down the line.

Nevertheless, Hosni Mubarak still insists he will stay in office until the September elections, not flee the country with his tail between his legs like Tunisia's Ben Ali. The storm can be weathered. Hence, according to the government, it has a "clear road map" for the "peaceful transfer of power" to … itself (and a few tame stooges). Its threats go hand in hand with calls for "dialogue" and "national reconciliation", which have seen the regime enter into negotiations with assorted opposition groups. That includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which has so far proved itself to be rather timid and not at all radical. Having waited two days before involving itself in the mass demonstrations, it has been unable to assert leadership over the movement. Indeed, the MB has exposed its lack of consistency by first dismissing negotiations with the regime and then agreeing to them. Almost inevitably, they came to nothing - now the MB says it will give Mubarak a week to go.

Egypt's state media reported that Mubarak has ordered parliament and the country's highest appellate court to "re-examine" a lower court ruling - previously ignored - that disqualified hundreds of ruling-party National Democratic Party MPs for campaign and ballot "irregularities". Mubarak's NDP won more than 83% of the 518 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections and, if implemented, the ruling would in all likelihood lead to the dissolution of parliament and the holding of new elections. In another concessionary move, aimed at placating the protesters by ditching some of the most hated officials in the government, the judiciary is to start the questioning this week of three former ministers and a senior ruling party official, who were accused of corruption after they were dismissed - along with the entire cabinet - by Mubarak on January 28.

Integral to Mubarak's sham "transition plan" is the creation of three committees for "national dialogue". In the words of Suleiman, their responsibilities include "implementing the required amendments of the constitution" and investigating the clashes in Tahrir Square last week, with a view to referring the findings to the prosecutor-general. The criminal investigating the criminal. Mubarak's NDP unleashed thousand of thugs - lumpens and out-of-uniform police - against the pro-democracy demonstrators. The death toll is now put at over 300. Nevertheless, the regime is making concession after concession. And, far from satisfying the masses, they breed courage and bring ever wider sections of the population into battle.

Take the announcement of a 15% increase in salaries and pensions for public sector workers, due to take effect from April - with the new finance minister, Samir Radwan, declaring that some 6.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($960 million) will be allocated to cover the rise for the six million people on the public payroll. Workers, both public and private sector, are now demanding more, much more, as democratic and economic demands interweave and feed off each other.

In other words, the regime is crazily swinging from concession to repression and back to concession No wonder US imperialism has lost faith in Mubarak's ability to hang on. The Obama administration fears that there will be not an "orderly" transition, but a full-blown revolution that would inevitably affect the entire region - naturally including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and other valuable assets. So the US is desperately looking round for potential clients to lead a CIA-sponsored 'colour revolution'. Mohamed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, Amr Moussa, Ahmad Zowail are options - but so too is Omar Suleiman and the Egyptian army. US defence secretary Robert Gates has pointedly praised the army for behaving in an "exemplary fashion" - declaring that it has made a "contribution to the evolution of democracy".

Bunkum, of course. The army top brass, with all its grotesque privileges, is completely bound up with the Mubarak regime - which is effectively a military-capitalist dictatorship. Yes, it is true that large swathes of Egyptian society have some sort of faith in it, whether because it is a conscript army or because it has its origins in the 1952 Officers Revolution that brought colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. And, yes, the protesters in Tahrir Square have extensively fraternised with the soldiers. But it would be a dangerous illusion to believe that the army would never move to crush the demonstrators if ordered to do so. True, it would be very unlikely that those soldiers stationed now in central Cairo would be used in such an operation. Rather forces from other regions of the country would be called in, as happened in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The danger of an army coup has to be taken seriously. In the end either revolution or counterrevolution will triumph. What began with Twitter will be resolved with guns. Hence the police must be disarmed and sent packing, sections of the army won and a popular militia formed.

Albeit tentatively that has already begun to happen. The police are often nowhere to be seen, people have formed citizen guards in various neighbourhoods, including those based on strikes at big workplaces, and, of course, in Tahrir Square demonstrators have built barricades and exchanged blow for blow, stone for stone, with Mubarak's thugs. The rank and file soldiers have become openly friendly with the demonstrators. Doubtless partly as a result, soldiers refused to move their tanks into the middle of Tahrir Square when faced with spontaneously formed human walls.

But clearly things need to go further. Workers, peasants, the urban petty bourgeoisie must form a popular militia. To begin with they must arm themselves with whatever comes to hand - sticks, knives and revolvers (the latter taken from the police). There is also the possibility of persuading soldiers to hand over weapons on the quiet.

By doing this the masses increase their chances of winning over sections of the army to the revolution - which in turn decreases the likelihood of the generals launching a coup. To advocate any form of pacifism under such conditions is positively suicidal and can only invite more violence, not less.

Our call for a popular militia is a fundamental democratic demand. It certainly appears in our CPGB Draft programme: we are for "the dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control". Needless to say, the demand for a popular militia is part and parcel of the orthodox Marxist tradition. Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and even Eduard Bernstein called for a popular militia.

Despite that, some have accused the Weekly Worker of advocating "popular frontism" or "stageism" - indeed, have counterposed the formation of a popular militia to that of a workers' militia. It is either one or the other, they say. Frankly, this is childish leftism. What ultimately lies behind such dichotomisation is a fear of entering into alliances with non-working class forces, of being 'contaminated' by the politics or ideology of other classes.

However, communists believe that workers' organisations are obliged not only to participate in the mass revolutionary upsurge for democracy, but to try and win hegemony over it. In which case, it makes sense for all the forces involved in the anti-Mubarak struggle to agree to common self-defence measures for as long as they are allies - even if only temporary ones. We need not unduly fear either the MB or bourgeois forces, such as the Nasserites or the New Wafd, dominating such bodies - the instincts of such parties is to oppose the arming of the people. Many of their supporters, however, but especially the millions who are at present attached to no political organisation, see the urgent need for self-defence.

There is no law which decrees that it is unprincipled for communists to take part in specific, limited actions for a common cause with other class forces - whether it be in a popular militia, organising demonstrations or anything else. However, what is unprincipled is to abandon or water down your programme/politics or criticisms of the other class forces involved in the temporary action or alliance. Which, of course, is exactly what the 'official communist' parties did in the 1930s, wretchedly subordinating working class interest to that of the so-called 'progressive' or 'democratic' bourgeoisie - inventing an artificial stage of so-called progressive capitalism, which the working class had to pass through in order to get to socialism. We in the CPGB utterly reject such illusions, which can only end in defeat.

Despite the excitement of a mass uprising, the actual state of Egyptian society must be soberly assessed. The working class in Egypt does not exist as a class politically. This is only to be expected, given decades of repression and 'official communist' misleadership.

Hence the working class cannot come to power either today or tomorrow: this is not October 1917 in Russia or anything like it. Consequently, to demand that a 'workers' government' take over from the Mubarak regime might sound good, but it is empty posturing. Propaganda for working class power and socialism is vital, correct and necessary. But what is needed are the tactics and broad perspective of forming the working class into a party - a party that can win a majority of the Egyptian population and has a realistic possibility of spreading the flame of revolution.

Space is needed to enable workers to organise, educate and exert themselves. The first condition being freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom to form parties, trade unions, popular assemblies, militias, etc. For this to happen, the entire Mubarak regime must go - including the standing army, police, secret police, the NDP, the government-controlled media and so on. Aims broadly shared with those occupying Tahrir Square, even though the left forces are currently very weak and fragmented.

It would, of course, be unprincipled to enter into governmental alliances with the MB, liberals, Nasserites, etc. If the Muslim Brotherhood or the bourgeois anti-Mubarak forces in Tahrir Square enter into a post-Mubarak capitalist government - a very real possibility - then they are no longer secondary enemies with whom we have been engaged in a temporary alliance against the main enemy, but have become part of that main enemy.

Communists should certainly not advocate the calling of elections in Egypt at the moment - or in the near future. We are not for a new parliament or president, or a constituent assembly. With the regime - or most of it - still in place and given the history of modern Egypt, not only the last 30 years of Mubarak, that could only only result in an anti-democratic farce (though if elections took place it might be tactically correct to participate in them).

Whatever post-Mubarak regime emerges, communists are against it - the workers' party, if one can be formed, must be a party of extreme opposition. Bluntly, the only government we want at the moment is a very weak, very unstable, very temporary one - a government whose ability to stifle or repress the nascent working class movement is severely limited. In other words, we are for the revolution in permanence - as Marx and Engels originally meant it.

The Egyptian revolution is part of a pan-Arab movement for national unity, which the working class must strive to shape and lead. Naturally, once in state power, our class would use the methods of revolutionary war to overthrow the sheikdoms and, crucially, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia - taking the wealth from the clutches of imperialism and putting it into the hands of the working class, peasants and urban petty bourgeoisie.