Is The Egyptian Revolution Aborted? Interview With Hossam El-Hamalawy

[I conducted this interview with Hossam El-Hamalawy despite a bad internet connection.]

Bassam Haddad (BH): What was the situation before 30 June in terms of the expectations of the progressive components of the Tamarod movement? In retrospect, were they duped? Did they not plan accordingly? Are they using this as a tactic to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood first, and then the army? So first of all, what is happening now, and how can we address the judgment issue about some of the progressive groups who are now must contend with the army? Or, am I wrong in even addressing this question?

Hossam Elhamalawi (HE): Well it is important to note in the beginning—Is the sound okay?

BH: Perfect. Perfect.

HE: Tayyib [Okay]. Khalas nabda’ min al-awal [We will start from the beginning]. Well it is important to note that in the beginning [that] I am not really interested in getting into this semantics game about whether it is a coup or not. Because it seems this has become the obsession of most of the spectators and the commentators at the moment, as well as the revolutionaries. There are a few points, or a few facts, that we have to be clear about, which are [the following]:

Number one, already in the run-up to 30 June, Egypt had been witnessing some of the strongest waves of strikes and protests by workers, by local residents in the urban poor areas—by literally every class in our society, including even the middle classes and the upper-middle classes. Because [of] the failure of the Morsi administration, or the Morsi government, over the past year to solve some of the major and urgent economic hazards, to tackle the social question, as well as to deliver on the promises of achieving the political demands of the revolution. This has already triggered so much protest from below. So when you say that this is a military coup (or period), and you just stop there, you give the wrong impression that the military had woken up one day and decided to take over. So that is why I am really cautious when it comes to using these terms, and I actually do not want to indulge a lot into the description.

Secondly, it is also important to note that the military has already been ruling this country since 1952 under different forms and under different regimes. [In addition,] with the uprising that started on 25 January 2011—that ended up with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak—the military stepped in, in a much more overt, clear, and direct way in managing the transition of this country from one regime to the other. […] This basically happened not because the revolutionaries trusted the military, or because the military was anti-Mubarak, or [because] it is patriotic, blah blah blah. This is because the military, which is the core of the Mubarak regime, and the core of the Egyptian state, decided to sacrifice Hosni Mubarak, or else they were about to face a real mass rebellion that would have toppled the entire regime—which they are major beneficiaries of. 

The military, in case we forgot, controls roughly twenty percent of the Egyptian economy. The Egyptian generals are basically among the ruling elites in this country. The military is the strong core of the Egyptian state, and has the final say in so many things, even when they used to play a less overt role back in the day—whether it is under Mubarak or under [Anwar] Sadat. Now, over the past two years, were we up against a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime? Now, this term might also be a little bit misleading. […]

It is true that the Brotherhood, together with the alliance of some of the Islamic tendencies—including Jihadis, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, al-Wasat Party, [and] factions of the Salafi movement—have been ruling this country. But at the same time, it is wrong to say that we were up against a Brotherhood regime, because it was still Hosni Mubarak’s regime that decided to give the Brotherhood and the Islamists—Now, over the past two years, it is a mistake to think that we were up against a Brotherhood regime. It was still Mubarak’s regime. But they gave a share of the cake to the Islamists. The military thought that the Islamists could be the ones who could stabilize the streets, who could suck up the energy of the revolution of the streets, by striking alliances with their opportunistic leaders in order to suspend strikes, to stop the protests, and even to attack–here, I do not just mean verbally, or in terms of propaganda, but sometimes even physically–revolutionaries on the ground. [This is especially the case] when they took to the streets against the police and the military, most notably during the November 2011 Mohammed Mahmoud street uprising, [and] during the December 2011 Occupy Cabinet uprising. Now, let us remember what the Islamists were doing during these times, and how they were chanting for SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] against the revolutionaries. So it became clear to the military in the run-up to 30 June the Brotherhood have lost control. They could not control the situation in the streets anymore. They could not provide a solution in order to stabilize the situation.

Was it in the interest of the military to see the Muslim Brotherhood go? At this point, I would say, yes. There definitely was an intersection of interests. But it would be wrong to claim that the mobilization that occurred in the Egyptian streets in the run-up to the 30 June is all the work of the fuloul, the remnants of the Mubarak regime, or [even] all the work of the military. There is a strong anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment that is all over the streets, and this is basically the result of the complete failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to provide, or [rather] to improve, the economic situation, and to implement the goals of the Egyptian revolution in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the public because they were against the Mubarak regime, or the previous regimes too. They provided some channels for opposition, and they were persecuted by the security services. When they were in the opposition, they could utter whatever propaganda they wanted to say. But, now they are in power. And they did not do anything. This has discredited them in the eyes of the public. 

BH: I think the issue that a lot of people would like to hear from you, especially, is what your take is on this kind of coincidence of interests. And how can we make sense of it in light of what might appear to be a future– or a near future–in Egypt, where the question of decentralization of power and of liberation does not seem as rosy as one would have thought on the eve of 30 June? 

HE: You have to put yourself in the shoes of the Egyptian citizen who, on the one hand, dislikes very much Morsi and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood—which got completely discredited in their own eyes. On the other hand, there is no viable alternative, like the opposition, the revolutionary groups, revolutionaries like myself—we are a minority and we have to admit that. I am here talking about minority in terms of an organization on the ground that is capable of providing leadership for these millions of workers and Egyptians who are protesting and striking. So, in the absence of a viable alternative, how can you blame the people for rushing to the military? That is the most secure thing in their own eyes, held by the fact that there is a consistent persistent propaganda campaign in the media, in the so-called private as well as state outlets, in support of the military. [This media is] disseminating fears and concerns about terrorism and about the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians who are “infiltrating” the country, blah blah blah blah blah; about the Israelis who will take over Sinai once again; about the American conspiracy to do I do not know what. You cannot blame the people for rushing to the military. You can only blame the revolutionaries for not getting their act together and providing a third alternative. Hence, when you go to Ta?rir [Square], and you find great numbers of people chanting for Sisi—the minister of defense—or chanting for the military, you should not get disappointed, demoralized, and say that this is basically a counterrevolution. That is not true. Let us remember that among the crowds on 11 February, and even before that, people were chanting for the military. And it took them some time to get disillusioned. Now, even when we are in the third year of the Egyptian revolution, and even when the military committed all of those crimes, you will still find people who will be rushing and seeking refuge in the military option because—once again—there is no viable alternative that has been created by the revolutionaries.

So, at this point we are at the crossroads. If you were among the leftists who regard the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in general as fascists, then you would rush to support the army crushing the Islamist protesters by machine guns, live ammunition, as well as mass roundups and arrests—because it is basically the army fighting fascism. But you could hold a different view about the Muslim Brotherhood being a reactionary opportunistic movement that is composed of nonhomogeneous elements: at the top of the pyramid you have neoliberal billionaires like Khairat al-Shater; while at the bottom of the pyramid you have poor workers, poor peasants, and impoverished lower-middle classes who had all sorts of illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and about the Islamist project that joined the Islamists in the first place because the leftists failed. Before you start denouncing the base cadres of the Islamist movement, you should ask–any leftist should ask himself or herself—why could you not recruit them to your movement in the first place?

Now, these people went there to support the Islamists. Right now, they are facing the Muslim Brotherhood members attacking any sit-in or attacking the residents in any neighborhood, like what happened in Alexandria, Mespero, Manial, or in other places. They definitely should be dealt with right away. The revolutionaries have a right to defend themselves from these armed attacks. Make no mistake about that. But at the same time, I am not going to stand on the same sideline with the Mubarak’s state machine, which has not disintegrated, and which has not gone away, and with Mubarak’s army, Mubarak’s mukhabarat, Mubarak’s military police, and the Mubarak state security police opening fire on Islamist protesters in Nasr City or elsewhere, or cracking down on their base cadres who are not involved in violence. Because this is the same Mubarak regime which will start cracking down on me, and the other revolutionaries in the opposition as soon as they are done with the Muslim Brotherhood. We are not going to fall into this trap. This does not mean that I support Morsi. This does not mean that I support the Muslim Brotherhood. This does not mean that I do not see that their leaders should be tried or anything. They should be tried. And once again, I think that Morsi deserves nothing less than execution for all of his crimes over the past year. Yet, we should not be fooled into endorsing the old Mubarak state and helping it to return once again. 

BH: Can you tell us a little bit about the actual coalitions? Not coalition, I was actually corrected that it is not a coalition. But can you tell us or break down for us the anti-Morsi contingents or groups? Because there is some confusion as to what it is made of. And, can you tell us if everyone is still on the same page as they were prior to 2 and 3 July ?

HE: There was [something] like a rainbow, or [rather] there was a rainbow coalition. The camp that was anti-Morsi basically contained this mish-mash of groups. Those who lined up against Morsi included the opposition parties from the National Salvation Front [(NSF)], and that would include Hamdeen Sabahi’s al-Tayyar al-Sha‘bi, El Baradei’s al-Dustur Party, as well as remnants of the Mubarak regime represented by Amr Mousa and others. Even among the anti-Morsi camp, there was definitely a presence also by the fuloul represented by the supporters of Ahmad Shafiq (General Ahmad Shafiq), the supporters of the deceased General Omar Suleiman, and by elements from the Egyptian upper class that are definitely against Muslim Brotherhood (but they are for the return of the old regime, or the Mubarak regime as it was). But, I cannot say that they were the ones calling the shots. It would be a great mistake to say that it was the counterrevolutionaries who were at the top of or spearheading the movement.

The Tamarod campaign, which has gained so much publicity and fame both in Egypt and abroad, had been a decentralized campaign from the start. The only thing that gives it a little air of centralization was perhaps when the media focused on the cofounders—the three cofounders—of that initiative. But in so many governorates and provinces it was different political and revolutionary groups that took up the task of collecting the signatures from the people on the streets. It was not just some online operation. Some were done in coordination with the centralized committee of Tamarod, and other initiatives were done totally independent from it. So it would be difficult to put your finger on what exactly Tamarod is thinking. I mean, which Tamarod? Do you mean the Tamarod of the three cofounders and their official Facebook page? Or do you mean the local activists on the ground?

So to say that the activists from the beginning had the intention of handing the country over to the military is also false. You need to look at the statements of the different revolutionary groups, which participated in that mini uprising against Morsi. At the end of the day, even when the military is still out there, the anti-Morsi camp is now being filtered and it is now bein—how should I describe it? Ya‘ni ‘ayiz aqul farz. Ya‘ni, bi-al-mo?askar bi-yitafarraz bi-al-?arabi.

BH: Okay, basically it is being parsed. Meaning, it is being scrutinized and divided into different sections. But in order to do what? 

HE: Well, it is based on the position. Or [put differently], it is now being divided according to the lines of: Are you going to support the military’s roadmap? Are you going to support handing concessions to the Salafi al-Nour Party—which is the only Islamist force that had allied itself with the military with this move, yet, now it is more or less out of this alliance? When the army cracks down on the Islamist protesters, are you going to support the butchering of those protesters or are you going to denounce it? And if you denounce it, does that mean that you support Morsi? Or you are actually standing against both, Morsi and the army? Which is the position that I am taking, and the Revolutionary Socialists are also taking in these events. So that is why the anti-Morsi coalition is now crumbling. But, I actually think it is a positive thing. It is not necessarily a bad thing. There were people who were jumping on the wagon that did not deserve to be there in the first place. They actually deserved to be in prison—if you ask me—for their involvement in crimes under the former Mubarak’s regime.

We should not be demoralized that the military still has the upper hand. You can see gradual disillusionment happening among the people— even when they are still carrying Sisi’s pictures in the protests—because of the latest moves to bring back the notorious old figures from the Mubarak regime so as to have cabinet positions, dashing the hopes of even the Tamarod activists—who thought that they could put in some of the populist reformers (i.e., opposition figures) into these positions at the moment. That is why we are going ahead with the protests whenever we can. We have to stand firm against the army’s butchering of the Islamist protesters. This is not some “human rights-y” or some “liberal-ish” position. This is a position of either betraying the revolution—by standing hand in hand with the Mubarak repression machine that we rebelled against—or taking an independent integral stand against both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

So for the supporters of the Egyptian revolution abroad: What you can do is to keep circulating information about the abuses of the army that are taking place here. This is not something that we should cheer or salute. We also need the independent labor unions abroad to issue solidarity [statement] with the Egyptian strikers who are striking in the factories over both bread-and-butter issues as well as over the purge from the companies of the old corrupt figures that belong to the Mubarak dictatorship. And maybe here I should also refer to the disgraceful position of the Independent Federation of Trade Unions in Egypt, which had played very positive political and economic roles on so many occasions before. But, the Federation leadership—which is influenced by Nasserism—has decided to compromise with the military, and they decided that they will be suspending strikes as well as pushing the workers in order to “produce more”—which is this kind of nationalistic propaganda that is against the strikes and actions in order to improve the social standards of the Egyptian workers. Thank God that the Federation, actually a bureaucracy, does not have much control over the militant base cadres within the Federation and the Federation still does not control, or still is not in the leadership position of, the Egyptian labor movement. Most of these strikes that were happening, they were neither happening because of nor organized by the Federation or by any political group. There were spontaneous locally organized grassroots activists in those factories, and I expect them to continue.

BH: Khalas [Done.] Okay, thank you ?abibi, take care of yourself. Wa Ramadan Mubarak. [Laughs] Sorry. 

HE: [Laughs] Balash Mubarak di! [Let us do without the Mubarak!]

BH: Tayyib ?abibi, salam, bye-bye. [Okay habibi, take care, bye-bye]

HE: Bye-bye.  

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