Solidarity and counterrevolution in Egypt: an introduction


The overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt was a massive setback for imperialism and made the language of revolution central in the midst of global capitalist crisis. It was a revolution that travelled- spreading right across a region which had been at the centre of great power politics since the middle of the last century. As the project for an American century was ground down in the bloody horror it had created in Iraq, the spreading revolutions appeared to signal a new era of political radicalism growing out of opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism.

In the region itself the coming together of diverse social and political forces against dictatorship broke the mould of older corrupt systems of dominance and promised something new. There had been signs of this in the movements against the war but this was not a protest movement-it was a revolution. All the older stereotypes about a region that history happened to rather than a region that made history were shaken: producing consternation in Washington and Tel Aviv, but also, as the contagion spread, in Tehran and Moscow. Imperialists and dictators alike looked like they were losing the plot.

It’s unsurprising that socialists and activists around the world were inspired by these developments and eagerly debated both the tactics of the new movements of the squares and the wider significance they portended. Many were aware of their history. Egypt had always been at the centre of radical political developments in the region, it had also always been seen as one of the centres of the regions labour movement. Meetings were held, solidarity declared and resolutions passed.

Excitement and speculation about the new was therefore combined with long held theories and hopes from the past. The scene darkened as it became clear that many of the existing dictatorships were prepared to pull the sky down rather than give up their power: in Libya allowing imperialist intervention and in Syria creating civil war and unprecedented horror. These produced loud and sometimes acrimonious arguments on the left but there was no shortage of debate and reassessment.

In Egypt elections took place producing landslide victories for the Freedom and Justice Party, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Sections of the left backed Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party candidate, against the old regime candidates, but in general believed that there was no fundamental contradiction between the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood. In retrospect many of us on the left held two apparently contradictory beliefs at the same time. On the one hand we believed that the introduction of formal democracy was cosmetic, on the other we believed that the changes heralded by the revolution were irreversible.

So big debates raged about whether the new government was simply a puppet of the military or whether it would be like the AKP in Turkey, whilst some feared it would be like the Iranian regime. In the meantime polarisation grew about the political meaning of the clashes of the new government with the military, some seeing these as attempts to consolidate democracy, others as attempts to consolidate theocracy. These debates became merged with debates about whether continuing social struggles and associated political campaigns were a continuation of revolution or on the other hand part of a destabilisation campaign by the military and feloul against democracy. It’s doubtful if even today there is any consensus on these questions: the answers are not straightforward.

What absolutely no-one expected however was that just one year after the election the government would be behind bars and supporters of that government would be butchered by tanks and helicopter gunships in the streets, that hundreds would be being sentenced to death in absurd show trials, and that the old constellation of social and political forces associated with the revolution would be utterly and irrevocably divided- with no agreement even on the meaning of the terms revolution and counterrevolution. In the meantime the US, the EU and the Cameron government has offered their congratulations to the mass murderer Sisi whose rigged elections had to be extended by a few days to get enough people to stand in line for the cameras outside polling stations, whilst so cowed is the media that their anchors make jokes about sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in order not to allow them to spoil the General’s day. It is a time of rage and shame.

There is obviously no way that the controversies associated with these tragic developments can be settled from afar on a British blog. But some of us do believe that we owe a duty of solidarity to those forces which continue to provide the main opposition to the military and face repression day in and day out, and are the main target of the counterrevolution’s repression. Especially as that repression is being supported by our own government, who are now responding to the long arm of counterrevolution by demanding enquiries into the ‘activities’ of the Muslim Brotherhood in this country, at the behest of forces opposed to the democratic revolutions in the region, including that well know supporters of secularism and democracy Saudi Arabia. We feel that the left internationally has been too silent about this aspect of the counter-revolution because of its political ambivalence about R4BIA and the belief that it is merely a Muslim Brotherhood front. This has had the effect of diminishing coverage and awareness of the scale of the repression, but also, very importantly, the scale of resistance to it. We think that it is absolutely not necessary to politically support the Muslim Brotherhood or its program to support the main opposition to the western backed military regime. We are absolutely in favour of continued solidarity with activists of the left facing the repression of the regime but feel that such solidarity should not be seen as a substitute for also supporting a larger secular campaign of support for all victims of the coup regime.

In order to open up a debate about this difficult question Sam Charles Hamad has written the following piece on the experience of R4BIA following the military coup, in anger, and in solidarity.

John Game

The anti-coup movement R4BIA

In the wake of the counter-revolutionary military coup that overthrew the elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013, the level of repression against anti-coup activists has been unprecedented in Egyptian history. From mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, to the mass murder of anti-coup activists, including the infamous massacres that occurred during the liquidation of the anti-coup sit-ins at Rabaa Square and Nahda Square on August 14, 2013, the repression has been ceaseless and brutal, with anti-coup activists being murdered and brutalised on a weekly basis. However, despite all of this, this movement continues to contain millions of participants and supporters, who have been able to hold protests every single day since July 3, from Aswan to Alexandria, on campuses across the entire country. If not for the way in which much of the world has been willing to accept some of the counter-revolutionary mythology and propaganda about this movement (i.e. that it’s just the Brotherhood, as opposed to the authentic revolutionaries, whoever they may be), it would surely not merely just be written about more often, but rather actively celebrated. We’re talking here about a movement that has managed to remain non-violent in the face of a campaign of eliminationist state terror, including massacres and frequent attacks by the security forces with live ammunition, not to mention risking arrest torture and imprisonment (around 40000 people have been prosecuted for political reasons since July 3, the vast majority of whom are part of this movement) by merely taking part in one of its demonstrations, or for being caught in possession of its symbol.

So who are the people facing all this repression? To which organisation or political party do they belong? For what reasons do these men and women risk life and limb on a daily basis by holding demonstrations that are often met with live fire from the black-clad Central Security Forces, or face sexual assault and beatings from the security forces and Baltagiya thugs? If we were to believe the mainstream Egyptian media, all of which exists to disseminate regime propaganda, we would imagine that this movement is armed and dangerous with terroristic intent, or comprised of foreign agents, working with Israel or Iran, or, perhaps less dramatically but no less insidious, that it is merely comprised of faceless/nameless/mindless members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whatever the devilish way in which the anti-coup movement is described by the regime and its propaganda outlets, one thing is essential to its portrayal – that it isn’t Egyptian, or at least by their supposed fealty to the terroristic and omnipresent evil of the Muslim Brotherhood, they have ceased to be part of ‘the nation’ and are now mere traitors and saboteurs. They are the ‘enemy’ in the state’s self-described ‘war on terror’. In reality, this movement was formed out of those who were opposed to the military coup that removed Mohamed Morsi and who believed in the legitimacy of the democratic system that was the main product of January 25. There is absolutely no doubt that this movement contains a significant amount of members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention other Islamist groups, but to merely reduce it to these things doesn’t give a fair appraisal of the ideological nature of the movement or of the motivations and demands of those who comprise it.

One of the essential components of the mythology that served as a justification for the military coup, and which now serves as justification for the ongoing repression against the anti-coup movement is this notion that the removal of Morsi was basically unanimously supported by ‘the Egyptian people’ or, depending on who’s propagating a variant of the myth, ‘the masses’ and ‘the multitudes’. All of those opposed to July 3 are merely the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, and their opposition is based on irrational obedience to their tribe, as opposed to ‘the will of the Egyptian people’ and ‘the continuation of the revolution’. This mythology has successfully managed to delegitimise the fair and free elections that brought Mohamed Morsi to power in 2012, not to mention the parliamentary elections of 2011, which were dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), while it has legitimised the military coup and the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, outside of this mythology, the fact is that support for the coup was never unanimous, and the opposition to it extended beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, on the eve of the massacre at Rabaa Square, Amy Austin Holmes, an academic based at the American University in Cairo, visited the Rabaa sit-ins and described what she found. As well as documenting the size of the sit-ins (which is important in the context of the counter-revolutionaries claiming rather absurdly and without any credible evidence that 33 million people took part in the June 30 protest in Egypt), and reporting that, contrary to the media’s relentless propaganda, the protests weren’t violent or full of armed Islamist terrorists, Holmes also writes about how many of the people she met weren’t members of the Muslim Brotherhood or even supporters of Morsi:

[N]ot a single one of my interlocutors at Rabaa were members of the Brotherhood. Maissa, a housewife who has been living in France for 13 years, said that before she starting coming to the sit-in she didn’t even know anyone from the Freedom and Justice Party, an organizing force behind the demonstration. Aisha, a young college student studying international relations in New Hampshire, told me that she was not there for Morsi, but for her principles. “If you get elected by the ballot box, you have to leave by the ballot box.” If Mohamed ElBaradei had been president, and had been removed by a military intervention, she claimed, she would be defending him instead of Morsi. Mohamed, a 27 year-old marketing instructor at the American University in Cairo, was also not a member of the Brotherhood. He even referred to Morsi as a “loser.” He said that he wasn’t insisting that Morsi be re-instated. What was it then that they wanted? Why had they been camping out there for 45 days, enduring bullets, tear gas, and the August sun. As if he were pleading for his life, he said, “We just want people to know we are peaceful. We are not terrorists.”

The truth is that the anti-coup movement was never about mindless support for the Muslim Brotherhood or tribal loyalty to its political wing. The official name of the anti-coup movement in Egypt is the ‘National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy’ (NASL), and it was formed initially by an alliance of mostly Islamist political parties, including the FJP, but its entire premise is not merely restoring Morsi to the presidency, but the ‘legitimacy’ in question is the legitimacy of the post-January 25 democratic system, the one that was overthrown and dismantled by the military coup on July 3 and the subsequent counterrevolutionary coup regime, headed up by Field Marshal and now president-elect Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The most recent extensive polling data of Egyptians by Pew also reiterates the fact that support for the coup was never unanimous and that, contrary to the propaganda and misconceptions still being propagated not just by pro-military and pro-Sisi figures, but also pro-June 30 liberal and leftist groups, opposition to the coup is still high among the general population. The poll found that around 43% of Egyptians opposed the coup on July 3, with 42% viewing Morsi favourably, while 38% still view the Muslim Brotherhood favourably, despite the massive repression and constant eliminationist propaganda against the group.

Engineering students place photos of classmates detained or killed by the coup regime on empty seats during exams

In fact, many of the political parties that formed NASL did so under the precondition that support for Morsi was not a essential component of the anti-coup movement, which is evident of the fact that NASL from its very offset was not based on this pretty narrow aim. This is not to say that the movement doesn’t contain many supporters of Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood-FJP, including many who would like to see him returned to the office of president, and even though many can still be seen holding up his image on anti-coup protests, it’s worth remembering that Morsi remains Egypt’s only democratically elected president and given the fact that he’s on trial for his life on absurd charges, he has become a rather unlikely figure of defiance and resistance.

It was only after the brutal massacre of anywhere between 600 and 1200 peaceful protesters at Rabaa Square that the movement that gathered under the banner of NASL began to take on its most recognisable form, which is that of the R4BIA movement, with its symbol of the black hand holding up four fingers against a background of yellow, and which was designed as a way for Egyptians and people around the world to express solidarity to those murdered and maimed in the Rabaa massacre and to those resisting the coup more generally. Ever since the massacres, the movement has become more diverse and has begun to incorporate more and more especially young people who were either part of the January 25 uprising or who have the same motivations as many of those who took part in it. Indeed, in a study of the anti-coup movement conducted by Neil Ketchley and Michael Biggs for the Washington Post, it is clearly demonstrated that these demonstrators were not motivated by religion. The authors note that the ‘anti-coup protesters are no more religion than either the anti-Mubarak protesters [of January 25] or the general population’ (see the graph in the article).In fact, according to the study, the top motivations of the anti-coup protesters were not, as the propaganda would have it, ‘religion’ and ‘loyalty’, but rather democracy and solidarity, or as Ketchley and Biggs put it:

While Morsi retains the sympathy of the anti-coup protesters, this is not a primary motivating factor for those who continue to take to the streets. Instead, protest is fueled by anger at the military-backed government’s repression against the movement. Over 90 percent of respondents said that a close friend or relative had been arrested since the coup and nearly 75 percent said that a close friend or relative had been killed while protesting. This explains why expressing solidarity with those who have been killed or arrested features so prominently in motivations for protest, along with a desire to continue the Jan. 25 revolution against Mubarak-era regime figures, many of whom have returned to power since the coup. Even for Muslim Brothers, these motivations trump showing support for Morsi and rank on par with religious obligation. Taken together, this suggests that protests will not stop because of the election of a new president, most likely to be former Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Moreover, this study highlights something that seems to have been forgotten in the events since Morsi won the presidency in June 2012, if it was ever very well established in the first place, which is the fact that many of those who took part in the January 25 revolution to begin with did not belong to any of the liberal and leftist groups that are associated with and, I would argue, over-represented when it comes to portrayals of January 25 in the mainstream media, but were rather part of the of demographic of the current anti-coup movement. As Ketchley and Biggs conclude:

Identification by the anti-coup protesters with the January 25 revolution is also a timely corrective to portrayals of the revolution as a predominantly secular and liberal affair, from which Islamists were noticeable by their absence. In fact, anti-coup protesters today appear no more religious than those who took to Egypt’s squares in early 2011. This is not to paint the Muslim Brothers or their supporters as the singular heirs to those events. Rather, it suggests that for many outside the familiar cast of liberal activists and revolutionary personalities, the spirit of 2011 lives on and is still worth mobilizing (and dying) for.

While Ketchley and Biggs touch upon some of the tensions within the anti-coup movement in terms of the contradiction of the Muslim Brotherhood holding out for the reinstatement of Morsi as president, while such a demand is not a key demand of the majority of anti-coup protesters, I would argue that this demand by the Muslim Brotherhood has never really been a serious disincentive to any kind of wider anti-coup/anti-military unity. As noted earlier, the fact that supporting Morsi’s reinstatement isn’t a precondition of joining NASL, which obviously contains political groups and individuals who aren’t interested in Morsi’s reinstatement, is suggestive of the fact that the anti-coup movement could already serve as a basis for unity. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood as part of NASL have attempted to reach out to the formerly pro-coup anti-military liberal and leftist groups, such as those who comprise the ‘Way of the Revolution Front’, which includes groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, and which supported the coup and much of the justifications for the massacres, but these attempts have been largely ignored or rebuffed.

An even more serious initiative for unity involving NASL has been laid out recently – the so-called Brussels Declaration, which has already managed to attract the support of Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad el-Thawra Party, and the only person to run against Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections, for which he was imprisoned for four years. Nour was forced into exile after the July 3 coup, and his presence as a signatory to and participant in this initiative, alongside NASL and others, is of some significance and represents the first time that a liberal figure has joined forces with the anti-coup movement. One of the most important aspects of the Brussels Declaration is that nowhere does it mention the reinstatement of Morsi as president, which is a key indication that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of NASL, are ready to participate in broad unity built around opposition to military rule in favour of democracy. (see full text of Brussels declaration below)

It is the R4BIA protesters who are on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution and it is thus them who are being murdered, brutalised and imprisoned on a regular basis. It is possession of the R4BIA symbol that can get school children arrested, and it is these protesters that are being slandered or written off as ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ by the domestic pro-regime media and ignored by liberals and leftists who are allegedly against military rule despite being initially supportive of the coup. The anti-coup movement is a pro-democracy and thus revolutionary movement and it is the every day men and women who comprise its rank and file that any supporters of democracy and social justice in Egypt should be supporting in any way they can.

Those interested in understanding more about the R4BIA movement and its international call to solidarity can visit this website or can follow its activities on the R4BIA London Facebook page.

The following is the text of the Brussels Declaration:


In the name of the January 25 principles and for the purpose of enforcing them and achieving what the martyrs died for, and for the perseverance of the revolution and peaceful protesting along the lines of the last ten months.

For completing the revolutionary struggle of January 25 and declaring a comprehensive political project to the end of terminating the terrorist coup and ending military dictatorship in a way that enables all members of society to participate in a successful transitional period, which will be based on cooperation between Egyptians and which will take into account all lived experiences and proposes to find solutions to any disputes as they arise.

In light of these foundational objectives, the signatories declare the following ten principles:

1) Maintaining pluralism among political parties and all political streams within a framework of democracy and partnership in order to overcome the negative traces of the coup and restore the spirit of January 25 and the democratic path.

2) Demanding the withdrawal of the military to its normal barracks and resuming its sacred mission to protect Egypt’s borders, with full abidance to military neutrality when in respect to political life.

3) Building a comprehensive strategy for a fair transitional period based on transparency, truthfulness and reconciliation between all parties, and putting laws into force that to ensure a fair penalty for the crimes against the martyrs and the injured, and taking all necessary action to fulfil instant justice.

4) Achieving social justice and guaranteeing the rights of the poor, the labourers and the marginalised, and ending social injustice through an economic programme that attains the total development of the Egyptian people.

5) Enabling women and youth to take leading roles in society that conforms to the roles they played in the revolution.

6) Guaranteeing public freedoms and rights and establishing a state based on justice, law and the preservation of human dignity.

7) Cooperating towards forcing a deep, radical reform in existing institutions along the lines of the principles of January 25 and using the skills of the Egyptian people, and re-establishing these institutions as proper pillars that work for society and provide positions for proper skilful candidates by ending all forms of discrimination and exclusion.

8) Restoring civil life in society and liberating it from subordination to executive power and enabling it to be a leading force in the development process.

9) Giving priority to regaining self-security, ending corruption and restoring the nation’s embezzled wealth both internally and externally.

10) Defending Egypt’s independence away from subordination to any entity, and regaining the Egyptian regional and international role based on mutual respect and discontinuity of meddling in internal affairs, and preserving mutual interests.

For the sake of Egypt and its revolutionary free people, and for the sake of its present and future, we call on free Egyptians to line up together to shoulder this historic responsibility in order to be able to get through this critical phase, and to support these principles and resume the talks to put these principles into force.

In the name of God we begin.