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Vol. 75/No. 7      February 21, 2011

Roots of political crisis
shaking Egypt’s rulers
For more than half a century Egypt has been governed by a caste of army officers who maintained capitalist rule by outlawing almost all forms of opposition. Successive regimes have denied freedom of the press, free elections, the right to form political parties, and the right to organize independent trade unions.

Whatever the outcome of the current protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, working people of Egypt have set the country on a different course.

Up through World War II, while formally no longer a colony of the United Kingdom, Egypt was still ruled by a monarch appointed by the British, King Fuad and then his son Farouk. Responding to the failure of the monarchy to lead a fight to prevent the U.S. and British governments from establishing the state of Israel on Palestinian land in 1948, young officers in the Egyptian army formed the Free Officers Movement, and staged a coup against Farouk on July 23, 1952.

The Free Officers all came from the middle class. Gamal Abdul Nasser eventually rose to be their main leader. In 1953 the officers abolished the monarchy and banned all political parties.

The army took power at a time of rising class tensions in Egypt. A strike broke out in August 1952 of 10,000 textile workers. The new government sent in the army to crush it.

The military regime at the same time instituted measures in response to pressure from workers and farmers.

The minimum wage was raised, hours of work reduced, and laws passed to create more jobs, especially in the government bureaucracy. Banks, industries, and transportation were nationalized, breaking the power of the aristocratic bourgeoisie and handing control over to the officer layers. Agrarian reform was declared.

Nasser said he was implementing “Arab socialism,” a claim promoted by many left forces around the world. The Egyptian CP promptly dissolved itself.

The CP had been trained in the counterrevolutionary policies of Soviet misleader Joseph Stalin, and followed the Stalinist line for communists in the colonial and semicolonial world to bloc with the “progressive national bourgeoisie” in the fight for liberation.

In an article written in 1965, Joseph Hansen, a longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party, offered a more sober look at what Nasser was doing. The land reform, he pointed out, left 80 percent of Egyptian farmers without any land. The farm cooperatives were headed by the landed aristocracy, which retained its hold over the peasantry.

By 1963 virtually all Egyptian industry was nationalized. But as Hansen pointed out, this did not make Egypt a workers state. “A workers state is based not only on nationalizations but, among other things, on the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, a reciprocal of the revolutionary consciousness of the leadership,” he wrote. “The great school for the masses in achieving this level is a popular revolution—a profound collective experience in mobilizing against the ruling class and its system in order to put an end to it and to consciously open up new historic possibilities.”

Unlike what would happen in 1959 in Cuba or in 1962 in nearby Algeria, there was no such popular revolution in Egypt.

In foreign relations Nasser played Moscow off against Washington, in a bid to see who would give him the most aid. In 1956 he nationalized the Suez Canal, then in the hands of French and British interests. At the same time, he sought to keep the Palestinian struggle within bounds.

As Egyptian businesses were nationalized, the officers and their families took over the management and over time became part of the bourgeoisie. A vast state bureaucracy was erected.

When Nasser died in 1970, Anwar el-Sadat, also of the Free Officers Movement, took his place. In 1979, under the close tutelage of the U.S. government, he signed the first peace treaty ever by an Arab state with the state of Israel. That opened up significant U.S. aid to Cairo for the first time.

Sadat also started removing some regulations hampering the free development of capitalist business and began to open up private investment. Some capitalist parties were granted legality.

Two years later Sadat was assassinated by officers with Islamist sympathies who opposed the peace treaty with Israel. This brought Mubarak, another veteran military officer who was then the vice president, to power.

Invoking a security threat from Islamist forces, Mubarak in 1981 imposed an emergency law severely restricting the right to form political parties and publish newspapers and giving the police sweeping powers to spy on and imprison people indefinitely.

When the George H. Bush administration launched its 1991 war against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Mubarak sent the third largest contingent of troops, further marking the acquiescence of Arab bourgeois regimes to U.S. might.

In the succeeding years, Mubarak, in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund, began denationalizing extensive parts of the Egyptian economy and opening it up to foreign investment.

The military-backed regimes have up to now thwarted any serious political challenges. None of the capitalist politicians in the opposition today can imagine governing Egypt without a strong military.

Through their mass mobilizations and organization the working people of Egypt are now fighting to end the military and dictatorial rule that has marked the past six decades,
Related articles:
Protests grow against dictatorship in Egypt
Strikes by workers, farmers expand fight
Back workers’ struggles in Egypt  
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