Friday, July 5, 2013

Egypt's Groundhog Day Revolution

I am someone who thinks it is extremely important that the centrality of Islam in Middle East politics and ideology in general, and the specific parties of "political Islam' (like the Muslim Brotherhood) be challenged, and someone who is not at all opposed to extra-electoral revolutionary mobilization, including the possibility of revolutionary insurrection. Still, I watch the unfolding events in Egypt with a sense of unease, even dread. In the accounts I've read so far from the Egyptian street, I get the sense that, where two years ago there was an elation married with great hope, now there is something more like muted glee accompanied by a sinking feeling. Mohamed ElBaradei's quote from the great American philosopher, "It is déjà vu all over again," is decidedly lacking its original charm in this context.


Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won the elections last year. In fact, I'm sorry to say, with the highest voter participation in fifty years, the MB and the more fanatical Salafists parties dominated the seven elections that were held over the last two years, crushing the secular, left, and liberal forces in every electoral contest. Given that the Election Commission and the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), which oversaw the elections, were comprised of Mubarak appointees, and considered in league with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) , there were suspicions that there would be vote-rigging, but the numbers were such as to leave no doubt that the elections reflected hard truths about the relative strength of the parties. On the basis of those electoral victories, Morsi, as presidents are wont to do, used his office to consolidate power for his political allies. It is fair to argue that he and the MB were too aggressive in that regard, but I do not think he closed the door on the opposition parties and factions. (Al-Amin, "Showdown in Egypt")

If anything, I think, the opposition -- especially its more militant secular and left elements -- made a strategic choice from the outset to embark on a project to undermine the Morsi/MB regime as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The radical opposition refused any strategic cooperation with the Morsi/MB regime, because they understood -- correctly, I think -- that such cooperation would have helped that regime consolidate and gain long-term stability and legitimacy. They wanted to cut off any possibility of the enracination of an Islamic state in Egypt. They wanted to stop in its tracks any attempt to strengthen the social, cultural, and political foundations of such a state, which they understood -- again, correctly, I think -- would be a profoundly reactionary regime, in a cultural and socio-economic, if not political, sense.

Indeed, the Morsi government did nothing to stop the continuing degradation of the socio-economic plight of ordinary Egyptians. As poverty rose to over 50 percent, Morsi weighed the terms of surrender to an IMF austerity loan. Like other Islamist tendencies, the MB has a definite strain of caritative populism. The left opposition understands, however, that the MB has no structural socio-economic program that breaks with neo-liberal capitalism.  As Gilbert Achcar, in Le Monde Diplomatique, quotes Sameh Elbarqy, a former member of the Brotherhood: "The core of the economic vision of Brotherhood, if we are going to classify it in a classical way, is extreme capitalist ... One of the big problems with the Muslim Brotherhood now — they have it in common with Mubarak’s old political party — is the marriage of power and capital."

So the radical opposition, taking a decidedly revolutionary posture that refused to be bound by the limits of electoral politics, mounted an extraordinary campaign to undermine and depose Morsi. They acted on the basis that street-level education and agitation were legitimate and necessary elements of an ongoing, and democratic, political process. They were confident that, especially given the dire and deteriorating social situation, such work could change the ideological ground, and move masses away from the Brotherhood's orbit and towards more radical action.  And they were right.

Coalescing around a group called Tamarrud (Rebellion), founded at the end of April, the radical opposition announced their intention to mount a weekend of protests at the end of June that would either force Morsi to resign, or, as Esam al-Amin put it, "force the military to take over the country and launch a new transitional period without the domination of the Islamist groups." They wanted the constitution annulled, and the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court installed as interim president. Towards that end, they then began a final push, circulating a petition, which, they claimed, quickly gathered more signatures to oust Morsi than votes he received in the election. They mobilized the anger of the nearly hopeless, impoverished populace, who had seen no changes for the better in their social lives, and united it with the fears of secular liberals, who saw Brotherhood political hegemony as the encroachment of a dogmatic Islamic social and cultural order. And they succeeded.

It was an amazing, exemplary, revolutionary offensive that, within the space of a few months, instigated a popular movement that deposed the elected government, and turned Egyptian politics upside-down.

Except...

For one little thing, this "revolutionary" dynamic was also based on an alliance with elements of the "deep state" of the repressive Mubarak-era regime, known as the fulool. As is to be expected in an unfinished revolution, the fulool haven't gone anywhere. As Esam Al-Amin points out: they are "still largely in control of the security apparatus, most of the private media, the judiciary, as well as major industries and influential economic institutions." Al-Amin also claims that, by the end of 2012, they had become "part and parcel of the secular opposition groups and a major factor of the instability that has overwhelmed the country ...reinvent[ing[ themselves [to] become major players on the side of the secular groups against the MB and the Islamists."

Also deeply disturbing: The final offensive against Morsi and the MB was based on promoting the Egyptian army as legitimate nationalist savior. Indeed, the events of the last week unfolded just as the opposition hoped they would, culminating with the army stepping in to depose Morsi, in response to clear demonstrations of popular anger and discontent, and sporadic and spreading episodes of violence. The SCAF, it turns out, was the key player, the go-to guy, for the Tamarrud.

This, we must remember, is the same army that was the backbone of the repressive Mubarak-era state for decades. It's the same SCAF that was denounced by tens of thousands who jammed Tahir Square last April, partly because of its perceived alliance with the MB! At that time, for example, one student was quoted as saying: “The military council is putting the people in a very hard situation, and people are angry because their demands have not come true...People feel like the old regime has not gone anywhere, and under the army we are living with them still." Yet another said: “I am against the military council because the constitutional declaration they made last year was all about rigging the election ... We just want a revolutionary candidate, someone we can support and who stands with the people.”

This is the same army that is notorious for being an economic as well as military caste. It's an army that, according to Al-Amin, controls "as much as thirty percent of Egypt’s economy," that, according to Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, "manufacture[s] everything from olive oil and shoe polish to the voting booths used in Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections," through a network of  "the privately owned businesses that constitute what has become known as the 'officer economy'."  It's the same army whose "tentacles also grasped large shares of the civilian public sector as part of the 'privatization' process in the 1990s," and which, accordingly, appointed  "a strong advocate of free-market liberalism and the 'rationalizing' of state subsidies on staples" as Finance Minister.

Even the New York Times reporter, Ben Hubbard, recognizes that this army "has never been a force for democracy. It has one primary objective...preserving national stability and its untouchable realm of privilege within the Egyptian state." For decades, "its tens of thousands of elite officers have jealously guarded their privileged station" and "grown wealthy through government contracts and business deals facilitated by their positions." As Hubbard says, the elite officers' corps is virtually "a hereditary Brahmin caste, in which sons follow their fathers’ careers and they all live inside a closed social circle."  And, as he cites Steven A. Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations: “The liberals and the revolutionaries are too quick to hop into bed with the military — it is not their friend...The most important thing from the military’s perspective is preserving its place as the locus of power and influence in the system.”

It's the also same military that was, with the consent of most secular and Islamist groups, in the constitution that has just been annulled, "afforded a constitutionally sanctioned special status in a supposedly democratic state run by civilians," and given a guarantee that the Defense Minister would be appointed from its ranks. (Al-Amin, "Egypt’s Constitution, the Opposition, and the Dialogue of the Deaf")

There's no way to avoid it: The Egyptian radical opposition has delivered the government back into the hands of this army. I find it hard to imagine how anyone thinks this advances a revolutionary process. The SCAF are not the Portuguese officers of 1974 (who are still revolutionary, BTW!). The SCAF is not there to energize and support, but to control and suppress mass movements for social justice. Nothing has happened to move the Egyptian state one more inch in a progressive direction, politically or socio-economically. If anything, the opposite. Replacing Morsi-and-the-MB + SCAF with ElBaradiei-and-the-technocrats + SCAF still = IMF + SCAF. Neo-liberalism with a secular face, more acceptable to the West.

Shamus Cooke quite perceptively reminds us how it goes: "In Egypt, the economic interests of different groups are consciously hidden behind religion and abstract notions of democracy. The very wealthy and corporations have no problem acting extra religious or especially democratic if it pushes their interests forward."

Now you also have this army rounding up and arresting Morsi, the elected president, as well as the leaders and who knows how many of the cadres of the MB. For what?  What crime against the people have they committed? Being Islamists?  Having won elections? Being too politically aggressive?  For how long will they be held? Until they agree never to run in, or maybe never to win, another election?

Perhaps the anti-Morsi left opposition thinks (What else could it be?) that the undeniable mass mobilization of the people they've achieved will be the guarantee against a return to pre-Tahir repression, and the engine of further, more complete, revolutionary change. Now that we've got the Islamist menace out of the way, we can go after the rest of the obstacles to the profound change we need, or something like that.

That has a superficial plausibility, and I certainly hope it works out that way. Problem is, it will only work out that way if the masses stay mobilized, if they have a program to press for that at least outlines specific policies that will make ordinary people's live better, if there is a political leadership and political organization capable of transforming the state in ways that will enable instituting that program, and if that mass movement and leadership have no illusions about the role of the "officer economy" and the (politically) liberal (economically) neo-liberal "technocrats" IMF robots, as much as conservative and dogmatic Islamists, will play in obstructing such decisive revolutionary change. If what you've actually got is a Groundhog-Day appeal to the mass of Egyptians to wake up to a new morning of million-people mobilizations every 6, 12, or 24, months; if, in the last mobilization you've actually strengthened everyone's illusions about the friendly, democratic, and salvific role of the national army; if you have no political and socio-economic project besides disrupting the reign of one bad guy after another; and if you have no political leadership or organization that wants to and will build the capability for those masses to take power and enact progressive programs, then, well, ongoing revolution, not so much.

There's also this tiny little thing:  If you think you've gotten the Islamist menace out of the way, you are dreaming. There are tens of millions of people who have long-standing allegiances to the MB and groups like it. They did not all turn against it in the last few months. The MB is a party with deep roots in Egyptian history and society. It isn't going away. You've got them out of democratic politics, though, that's for sure.  As one Egyptian merchant says: “Didn’t we do what they asked...We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?” And, as Essam el-Haddad, Morsi’s foreign policy adviser put it on his web page, before he was detained by the military: “The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.”  Already, rallies of thousands in the Sinai have been chanting: "The age of peacefulness is over. No more peacefulness after today.” Far from "out of the way," the Islamists are going to be in your face, more aggressively than ever, for some time to come. So much for peaceful transition. ("For Islamists, Dire Lessons on Politics and Power," NYT)

Unfortunate as it may be, Islamist parties' conservative socio-cultural positions and simple doctrinal certainties, as well as their charity-driven populism, have wide appeal in Muslim societies. Changing that will require some years of demonstrating that democratic political dialogue and liberal social values, combined with radical structural economic changes, can more effectively guarantee people's social security as well as a nation's cultural integrity. It requires, in other words, another kind of long-term revolutionary work. Under any circumstance, this problem will not be arrested away, and it is the opposite of revolutionary to think that it can.

As I said above, I am not averse, in principle, to extra-electoral politics, or even insurrection. A serious revolutionary conjuncture, a real break into a new social order, usually involves both. It's a process driven by politicized masses in motion, in ways that are not constrained within the limits of "normal" -- i.e., elite-crafted -- electoral politics. Let's say you have a sclerotically corrupt and unreliable electoral process, with tepid citizen participation, largely understood as a futile exercise, obviously fixed in advance by the ruling party or elite, and riddled by obvious maneuvers to disenfranchise dangerous voters and skew the vote, as you did in Mubarak's Egypt, or, you know, as we have now in the United States. Then, sure, that kind of electoral process is actually a tool of disempowerment and a thin facade of democracy, so political mobilization that bypasses it has a strong claim to legitimacy.  If, however, you have an election cycle in the wake of a euphoric revolutionary rupture, which attracts millions of newly empowered citizen voters who are eager to help define their new polity, then, from even the most "revolutionary" democratic perspective, you should be much more reluctant to declare it null and void.

Similarly, in the midst of a revolutionary insurrection that, with the cooperation of progressive military elements, deposes the government of a small, corrupt, plutocratic elite that has little popular support, especially a government that's been engaged in vicious repression against an insurgent popular movement, it is legitimate to arrest and detain key figures and key backers of that government.  After all, a revolution involves an unapologetic, forceful, seizure and transfer of power that seeks to be irreversible, and there are crimes against the people that deserve revolutionary justice. It's quite another thing, however, when a military that is an integral part of the corrupt elite itself finishes your insurrection for you by arresting a wide swath of the cadres of a mass popular movement, including its presidential candidate, who had been elected by tens of millions of people. This is not an exercise in revolutionary, or any other kind of, justice or democracy.

Egypt is in the midst of an upheaval that still contains a myriad of possibilities, but I'm pessimistic about how this is going to play out. It's a tad too clever to ideologically disarm the populace in the face of the army one day, with the idea that you can quickly rearm them ideologically against the army tomorrow. I fear that we may be seeing another example, in a key Arab country, of a powerful democratic upsurge veering into a disastrous dénouement. So far, in Egypt, we have seen the unfolding of an intense and militant revolutionary process, without a revolutionary program or revolutionary leadership, and therefore without a revolutionary strategy. If we want to pursue a familiar distinction, what we've seen in Egypt has been a rolling rebellion, not an uninterrupted revolution. It could still become the latter, but I think the last week's events have made that less likely.

This is the symptom of a condition that affects insurgent left movements throughout the world, especially those driven by revolutionary-minded youth. They understand both the political and socio-economic nature of the oppressive power they live under, and they understand how radical are the changes that are necessary to build a new world of peace and justice. They are smart and creative about devising ways to educate a broader public about it, and to protest and disrupt it. They fight power, disrupt power, challenge power. With few exceptions, they also refuse to assume power, or to organize for the possibility of doing so. By virtue of lived experience and liberal education, they have developed, beyond a healthy skepticism, an absolute allergy to power and organization. They inhabit an ideology in which power is not just tendentially dangerous, but intrinsically and irretrievably nefarious, and in which coherent, disciplined political organizations are dogs of this devil. Despite their positive appreciation of "empowerment" in other contexts, in the political context they cannot imagine power to be liberating as well as dangerous. They do not want to, and cannot, imagine a way of wielding power in a consistently, programmatically progressive manner. That way lies the Gulag, always.

The thing is, if progressive, revolutionary forces are not willing or capable of taking and wielding power to build a new social order, someone else will take that power. Something else will substitute itself for the revolutionary political organization that power-averse revolutionary youth disdained to build. Some other political party or parties, formed around a relatively coherent theory and agenda and set of common interests, will step into the vacuum of political agency that is left by such an ideology at the most critical conjuncture. Some other organized political force will take as a prize the society in ferment that those rebellious youth created -- like, say, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That way lies the status quo, squared, always.

The thing is, in any given real circumstance, there aren't an infinitude of possibilities for that.  In Egypt, as one analyst says, "besides the Brotherhood, [the armed forces] are the only really cohesive institution in the country.” Globally, there are a few constellations of programmatic ideas for structuring a modern polity, and I want to focus on the one fundamental socio-economic question that's "hidden behind religion and abstract notions of democracy" in Egypt and throughout the world today.

Everyone recognizes that a shallow program of "democracy," limited to formally free elections and well-written constitutions, does not nearly a revolution make. Revolutionary upheaval like we've seen in Egypt occurs because there is widespread social discontent, and without programs that -- radically, quickly and tangibly -- begin to change the social lives of the majority of people for the better, no revolution will move forward. A revolution is not just about giving people a vote or a newspaper. It's about giving people the people taking control of social capital, and changing the fundamental social relations of wealth production, accumulation, and distribution.

There can be no more pretense, in Egypt or elsewhere, that such changes can be made without a decisive break with capitalism, or, as its actually-existing variant is called, neo-liberalism. That's a very tall order, which demands not just evoking the necessity to do it, but elaborating -- in a context structured to make it extremely difficult to do so -- specific policies and programs that will lead irreversibly to the end of capitalist social penury and the beginning of another, more just, social order. That way requires, always, a theory that can explain the situation, and an organization that is rooted in the lives of everyday people and capable of effectively focussing their struggle for political empowerment,

Democracy is empowerment of the people, and thoroughgoing democracy is not a question of the granting of political rights, but of the seizure and extension of political and social power. That is the dangerous, and unavoidable, challenge, of revolutionary politics. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be no part of it.

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