Egypt & SWP: Nothing revolutionary about a high command coup

The SWP’s flip-flop on the Muslim Brotherhood reflects a profound crisis of perspectives, argues Ben Lewis

What a difference a year makes. Following the Egyptian presidential elections last summer, it seemed as though the Muslim Brotherhood’s day had dawned. Yet in the face of a seemingly intractable economic crisis, the continued existence of an all-powerful professional army and historically unprecedented displays of discontent, the MB was in real trouble. Events moved with alarming rapidity. To paraphrase Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s famous description of a revolutionary situation (one, incidentally, he drew from Karl Kautsky), the masses refuse to be ruled in the old way and the rulers are unable to rule in the old way.

Yet in the face of last week’s military coup, which all socialists and democrats must unreservedly condemn, the situation has become extremely dangerous. The role of the subjective factor in a revolutionary situation - the parties, programmes and ideas of the masses - is more important than ever. And this, as we shall see, is the real problem at present.

One of the many left groups operating in Egypt today is the Revolutionary Socialists, a sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. Noting a sharp upsurge in strike levels and industrial unrest (the highest in the world for March-May 2013), SWP member Phil Marfleet describes RS as a “national organisation” that has become part of a “Revolutionary Alternative Front ... bringing together members and former members of the Popular Current, the Destour Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Strong Egypt Party of liberal Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abou El-Fotouh... and the 6 April youth movement.”1

RS and the SWP both greeted the military coup as the “next stage” of the Egyptian revolution. While they note that the army is not exactly a friend of the popular masses, and that the army attacks on the MB could soon turn on the workers’ movement as well, the comrades downplay this possibility by pointing to the sheer numbers that have been mobilised and the confidence that they will have gained.2

Some RS material does an effective job of pillorying the MB in general and deposed president Mohammed Mursi in particular: the latter has been incompetent, has leaned on elements of the old Mubarak regime to rule, has lorded it over critical voices, has capitulated to the International Monetary Fund and world capital, has failed to meet the social demands of the revolution and so on. All good stuff.

But what none of these articles mention, let alone seek to explain, is that, just one year ago, the RS had actually called for critical support for Mursi in the presidential elections - a decision backed up by the SWP. Have the comrades had a sudden change of heart and realised that the MB is a reactionary, pro-capitalist, Islamist organisation? Surely militant workers on the ground have to question RS about this too?

Choosing the butcher

To get the answer, we can turn to the very same Phil Marfleet, writing in Socialist Worker last June: “Revolutionary activists will not enjoy voting for Mursi,” he writes. “If they do not do so, however, they are likely to experience the real nightmare scenario - a president cloned from the dictator they overthrew last year.”3

Yes, you read that right. Mursi was supported because he was not the candidate of - wait for it - the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Ahmed Shafiq. But now that this very same army has taken control against Mursi and installed a government of its own choosing, the RS and its allies welcome this as ... the continuation of the revolution that the MB was said to prevuiously embody.

Comrade Marfleet even pointed out at the time that the MB was suffering “many splits and defections”, as it became clear “that they can’t meet the people’s needs and expectations”. So why sow illusions in it by offering critical support? Why not instead focus on exposing it to build the sole force that can, with time and with organisation, deepen the revolution and defeat both pillars of Egyptian reaction? As one article by an RS comrade puts it, revolutionaries must “discriminate from the first moment between the enemies of the revolution and those who wish to complete it. This not only means complete independence within the movement from those opportunists and traitors, but also working to expose them and their true intentions to the people.”4 What a shame that this position was not applied last year.

Had comrade Marfleet or any of the others bothered to set out the reasons for this change of heart in recent articles, then perhaps it could all be explained away as part of some finely tuned strategy. But I somehow doubt it. Confusion on the MB has abounded in and around the SWP.

After all, on Twitter and Facebook I have seen several SWP members - with varying degrees of coherence - bizarrely explaining events in Egypt in 2012-13 through the prism of Russia 1917. Now I would be the last to say that we cannot learn from history. Yet, when you read discussions of whether the MB is acting in a fashion similar to the Mensheviks (a working class organisation!) after some of its factional leaders joined the provisional government, when you read tweets likening recent events to the ‘July days’ or you listen to SWP historian John Rose on Lenin’s Leftwing communism that actually focuses mainly on the need to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood youth, you cannot but conclude that there is something seriously amiss. After all, it is not so long ago that the SWP as a whole was advocating not just a tactical vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, or tactical agreements on certain demonstrations/rallies, etc, but joint party with the MB’s British section. John Rees, the most consistent advocate of this madness, has long since left the SWP. But the spectre of Respect still haunts it. To this day, I am unaware of any thorough critique of this (un)popular frontist adventure, even from SWP oppositionists.

How can it come to pass that revolutionary socialists celebrate something more analogous to the Kornilov coup of August 1917 as a “second revolution”?5 After all, if the events of the past week or so were more analogous to the summer of 1917, then it would actually be incumbent upon the forces of the left to defend the Muslim Brotherhood government from the army coup, not to welcome it. But the fact is that we are not in such a position.

The obvious reason why we are not is the absence of any serious workers’ party. And, as recent events have underlined, the SWP is not exactly at its strongest when it comes to Leninism and the party question. It strikes me that two main factors underpin the rosy reading of the July 3 coup: firstly, an misunderstanding of the Russian Revolution that sees the Bolsheviks as representing a small minority party in early 1917, rather than a mass party; secondly, the notion (prevalent in Trotskyist thought more generally) that there is something innate to ‘struggle’ and ‘mobilisation’ (usually, although not always, around economic issues) that points to, or even presages, working class rule and socialism.


It is, of course, true that the masses will have had a sense of their own power after all that Egypt has been through in the last two years. It is also true that the revolutionary process is not yet over. Up to a third of the entire population mobilised. But there can be no short cuts to deepening and widening the revolution, which is why Marxists take strategy so seriously and do not rely simply on events themselves.

In this sense, I think the comrades of RS are wrong to argue that, while the “liberal bourgeois elite wanted to use this mass impetus to overthrow the rule of the Islamist elite” and the remnants of the old regime also see a chance to claw themselves back into power, “there is a special logic to popular revolutions that will not submit to the illusions or schemes of the liberals or feloul, even if sections of the masses were temporarily affected by the slogans and promises of that elite, just as they were affected before by the slogans and promises of the Islamist elite” (emphasis added).6

Surely history actually shows that the opposite is true: in the absence of tried and tested, mass organisations of the class with clear programmes and strategies, anger will be dissipated or diverted. There is actually nothing automatic about forging our class into a party that has the strategy needed to win. Disillusionment with established parties and state institutions does not inexorably lead to socialist conclusions. What we do and what we say is extremely important. After all, it is not so long ago that people on the left were swept along by the promises of another Islamist figure, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran ...

One quote that is often rolled out to purportedly justify the existence of an underlying ‘logic of revolution’ is from Leon Trotsky’s introduction to his epic work, The history of the Russian Revolution:


The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political programme, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis - the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses - so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles.7


In terms of discussing revolutionary strategy, this passage itself probably warrants an article in its own right, but I think it is not without its problems. It can be used to dismiss or downplay the necessity of a mass working class party. After all, if the leftwing pressure of the masses leads to the superseding of a moderate party by a socialist party and then the superseding of that socialist party by a revolutionary socialist party one could be forgiven a certain passivity. As long as we remain sufficiently extreme our time must come. Hence instead of doing what the Bolsheviks actually did and organise for the revolution according to a definite plan for revolution, the temptation is to imagine that a tiny sect such as the RS in Egypt can act as the ‘guiding layer’ that in reality does not guide but follows the spontaneous movement of the masses, who through “successive approximations” are bound to arrive at the socialist revolution.

But can it really be argued that the shift from Mubarak to Mursi to general Sisi represents “successive approximations” to the extreme left? And even if the forces of the left have grown a hundredfold, as one would expect, have the myriad factions performed well? Have they shown great foresight? Have they recognised the necessity of organising the working class into a Marxist party?

Showing where a complete misunderstanding of events can lead we have the SWP’s utter disorientation over Syria. For a long time all that the SWP could see was an unfolding “revolution”.8 But hang on just one second: how does this fit with the recent “second revolution” in Egypt? Surely Mr Assad will be absolutely over the moon about the July 3 coup. After all, one of his deadly rivals is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and we know that Morsi not only broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus. He also turned a blind eye to the thousands of Egyptian jihadists who journey to fight in Syria. From the standpoint of the SWP’s Syrian ‘revolution’ then, have we not actually just witnessed counterrevolution in Egypt?



1. P Marfleet, ‘The workers advanceInternational Socialism July 2013.

2. Socialist Worker July 9.

3. http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/28119/Revolution+continues+beyond+the+poll+in+Egypt.

4. http://socialistworker.org/2013/06/27/revolution-and-counterrevolution-in-egypt.

5. A similar reflection of the same sort of attitude of today’s SWP is that the left’s attitude to the French general, Georges Ernest Boulanger, a populist figure who in late 19th century France gained a mass following amongst those alienated by parliamentary corruption. Strangely, he enthused some in the French movement, including Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue.

6. http://socialistworker.org/2013/07/05/four-days-that-shook-the-world.

7. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch00.htm.

8. The SWP has at least recognised that this revolutionary process may have been hijacked by reactionary elements. Not so Marcus Halaby of Workers Power, who invokes the spirit of the Red Army in this rather unhinged comment: “And those doomsayers on the international left, who have written off the Syrian and Libyan revolutions because they have developed into civil wars, demonstrate at best naive pacifism or, worse still, a cynical realpolitik that can only recognise a revolution’s legitimacy if it quickly achieves victory. What would they have made of the Russian civil war if they had lived through it?” (www.workerspower.co.uk/2013/01/the-arab-spring-two-years-on).