Tuesday 1 February 2011

Egypt: Revolution, Democracy, and Stability

As I write hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the resignation of the increasingly beleaguered and pathetic-looking Hosni Mubarak. When a people have lost their fear there are few things more wretched than a tyrant clinging on to power while it crumbles away beneath his grip. With over a million out on the streets across Egypt and a pledge by the army not to intervene, surely even Mubarak has to realise the writing's on the wall. Things just cannot carry on as they are. With mass mobilisations, an army refusing to follow presidential orders, a general strike crippling the country, and international calls for him to step down in the name of stability, something has got to give. If the army aren't backing the regime the only social forces with a direct interest in the dictatorship - big business, police (both overt and secret) and other dependents of the security apparatus - appear to lack the weight necessary to drown the uprisings in blood.

Unsurprisingly there has been some talk of what comes next. Assuming Mubarak and his regime are swept away by the end of the week (protesters have given him until Friday to leave power), who will fill the vacuum? While there are reports of the formation of neighbourhood committees, a development ironically spurred on by the random violence of National Democratic Party thugs, we are not in a situation of dual power. Yet. As the movement continues to grow and the labour movement revives off the back of strike action, these community defence organisations could put on more flesh as they organise to meet food shortages and make up for the collapse of local governance. Clearly for the revolution to assume a socialist colouration leftists on the ground will likely be doing everything they can to participate in them and encourage their development further.

All this represents a massive headache for the US and the main European powers. They neither want Egypt to fall to the Muslim Brotherhood in a latter day repeat of the 1979 Iranian revolution (which doesn't look all that likely anyway given the character of the protests so far and a
certain reluctance by the Brothers to get stuck into recent social struggles). Nor a prolongation of the stand off between the Mubarak regime and the people. The more it carries on, the greater the likelihood of civil war and/or the return of the spectre manifesting itself in embryo in the neighbourhood committees.

Egypt is, of course, home of the strategically crucial Suez Canal. An Egypt opposed to Western interests, be it Islamist, nationalist or, (dare we say it?) socialist, would represent a major defeat of their geopolitical strategy as it would restrict access to Middle Eastern oil and the markets of India, China, and South East Asia. I imagine there's been a few sleepless nights at the US State Department.

Amid much handwringing and the semi-ritualised "Egypt's government is a matter for the Egyptian people" (an oft-quoted principle that got stuck down the memory hole in the lead up to the Iraq war),
Hillary Clinton and Alistair Burt have been singing from the same hymn sheet. They of course "deplore" the violence and call for the return of stability.

It's stability that's the key here. Political revolutions against corrupt and authoritarian regimes are not a rare occurrence in the era of declining American hegemony. They come with the geopolitical territory. Provided they're relatively quick and don't challenge US and Western interests, the State Department has learned to live with them (how different it was before the collapse of the USSR). But the longer the Egyptian uprising goes on, the more worried the US will be. This is why it is very keen to encourage an "orderly transition" from the
ancien regime to some form of democratic governance.

One of the key lessons the global ruling class have learned is liberal democracy remains the best and most stable forms of government for the continued rule of capital. Over a century's experience in its heartlands has demonstrated its effectiveness incorporating and blunting radical challenges to the prevailing order. In Western Europe and North America liberal democracy in the post-war period has more or less successfully contained religious, regional, racial, and class contradictions. Dictatorships on the other hand are very brittle. They're good for a short sharp fix, like seeing off mass communist parties or other undesirables, but ultimately instability will return to haunt them. This maybe a reality the US has learned to live with, but it is also one they'd rather do without. Hence Western powers' warm words about democracy and human rights aren't just ideological window dressing for resource and market grabs in the developing world. They're also about propagating the political, institutional, and cultural underpinnings that can sustain the rule of capital over the long term.

With this in mind, it's perhaps a little bit more than coincidence that a lot of media attention has been showered on Mohamed ElBaradei (
this report is typical of the coverage). Of all the leaders of the domestic opposition ElBaradei is a known quantity to North American and European foreign ministries. As a former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and recipient of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, he is a safe pair of hands. And his intransigence in the face of the US case for Iraqi WMD is a boon for those who wish him to oversee a transitional government. Despite making his career outside Egypt, that episode demonstrates he's no American puppet.

ElBaradei however appears to have few supporters in Egypt - there is no social movement as such with which his name is associated. The 'National Association for Change' of which he is head has a minimum
programme for democratic change but is itself an umbrella organisation set up by various opposition leaders and civil society actors. He is therefore a figurehead nominated by social movement organisations and parties rather than a leader in his own right. That said this could be his strength in any post-Mubarak carve-up. Without a firm base of his own he could be seen as a neutral figure above existing and emerging political factions. Ahead of presidential elections his person is the perfect stop gap acceptable to Islamists, liberals, and sections of the left.

While the importance of ElBaradei to a slow transition scenario (outlined
here) is obvious, I very much doubt the revolution will accept nothing less than Mubarak's resignation with immediate effect followed by the formation of a provisional government. That outcome, which seems most likely at the moment, could still see the West-friendly ElBaradei play the role outlined above.

After Egypt the question is whether revolution will spread. Given the pivotal cultural and economic position Egypt occupies in the Arab world it's hard to see how it cannot. North Africa and the Middle East are almost exclusively ruled by dictators and self-styled monarchs, and frustration and anger from below is in anything but short supply.
Some have taken action to head revolution off at the pass. Others are sitting and waiting to see if the fire catches their countries. It will also be interesting to see if it spreads northwards into a European Union being forced fed a diet of unnecessary and ideological cuts. This isn't to say the likes of Ireland, Greece and Britain are staring revolution in the face. But I would be very surprised if numbers taking to the EU's streets aren't swelled by hundreds of thousands inspired and encouraged by the scenes from Suez, Alexandria, and Cairo.


Chris said...

And still the old despot hangs on.

This Boffy law of 'stable' democracy = best conditions for capital is conjecture and does not equate with the facts. Why is it that the USA have been happy to provide huge amounts of aid for decades to the despotic Mubarak regime? That is the fact that cannot be contested. You want to argue that this has been against the will of the US and they have secretly yearned for 'stable democracy'. The US wants to keep a lid on the desires of the Arab people. It could be that the interests of the US ruling class are for despots to rule the Middle East, rather than Liberal democracy.

Zizek argues that what he calls capitalism with 'Asian values' could supercede 'liberal' Western capitalism. Again conjecture but something to consider when attempting to formulate the best conditions for capital accumulation into some kind of law. Let alone trying to then apply that law to every corner of the Earth.

Phil said...

I think you're missing the point, Chris.

The US are not in the business of undermining their clients. But when an explosion does occur their obvious preference would be for a government that can manage the contradictions of that society. Hence all their warm words about liberal democracy.

This isn't to say this has been their position before now. 20th century history is littered with countries subverted and ground under foot by US-backed militaries and regimes. But we live in different times now.

Chris said...

Yes we do live in different times, times when a Chinese model of capital accumulation could challenge the classic Western model. This Boffy attempt to formulate capital accumulation into a law that can be applied to everywhere and then using that law to let the USA off the hook for 30 years of arming despots in Egypt beggars belief.

Phil said...

The problem with the Chinese model of capital accumulation is the extent to which it is driven outside and its co-dependent relationship with the US. It certainly offers a model for Stalinist states and boon to those in the West arguing for more state management of economies, but there are massive problems around non-convertibility, corruption, rule of law, etc. It's also worth noting China is a very unstable country with protests and strikes on a massive scale. It's only the size of the country and the dumb brutality of the state that keeps a lid on things. In the long term the Chinese state will have to allow more substantive forms of democracy. It can't stamp out dissent forever, as Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated with stunning effect.

Phil said...

What Boffy said earlier:

I think its because the US has been training those forces that it will not be too worried at the moment. Both Hilary Clinton, and Haig have made comments basically calling on the military not to use violence. They have both spoken about the people having legitimate economic and political concerns that should be addressed.

Egypyt is one of those "second 11" economies identified after the BRIC economies, along with Turkey, which is why what happens now is important for multinational Capital. The policy for that Capital, and its representatives within the US and the EU is actually quite simple. Its aim is to create the kind of conditions under which Capital Accumulation can best occur. Under conditions where the dominant form of exploitation is via Merchant Capital and its relations with a Landlord Class - which typified the Colonial regimes of the 19th century and early 20th Century - then some kind of repressive almost feudal regime is adequate. But, under conditions where industrial Capital becomes dominant, where sizeable industrial proletariats arise that is no longer the case. That is why Capital created liberal bourgeois democracies towards the end of the 19th century, that were able to incorporate the working class via some form of Social democratic consensus, which absorbed workers demands through the medium of the Trades Union bureaucracy, and Social Democratic parties or measures - for example it was Liberals and Tories who established the Welfare State in the UK, and Tories who continued those systems in the 1950's, and 70's.

As Lenin pointed out bourgeois demcoracy is the most effective system for Capital in ensuring Capital Accumulation, which is why once it has established it it is loathe to let go of it. But, in countries which have not yet, or have only recently gone through a process of industrialisation, the old political regimes exist as a legacy. In condiitons as Trotsky points out in relation to Mexico,where the domestic bourgeoisie is weak Bonapartist regimes or military juntas are able to arise. Where these regimes look to support from a powerful foreign Capital they act to repress the workers, but where, for example as in Venezuela they act in the interests of a section of the domestic bourgeoisie, they tend to rely on the support of workers as a bolster against foreign Capital. Tunisia and Egypt fall into the former category.

But, generally these kinds of regime are not the first chocie for multinational Capital. They are usually corrupt, bureaucratic, inefficient, and frequently unreliable and unpredictable, sometimes acting arbitrarily in relation to Capital itself. Russia is another current example of that. Because they rely on repression to ensure social peace rather than the normal methods of socialisation of bouregois democracy, they have very high overhead costs for capital, reducing Surplus Value. They tend to lead to outbreaks of violence and chos and perpetual sullen resistance on the shop floor, as well as the kind of social conflagration we see now.

The US and EU would undoubtedly like to see the kind of peaceful and fairly orderly transition to the kind of bouregois demcoracy that has occured in other countries that have gone through the process of industrialisation, such as those in Asia, and latin America. That is probably why they are making the noises they are now, and why they are speaking about the possibility of Aid to smoothe the path. That is, of course, not to say that if they see the possibility of some regime coming to power which would threaten their interests, they would not take a different view, and throw their support behind some strongman, or some right-wing force - possibly such as the Muslim Brotherhood - who they felt they could do a deal with. But, I think the fact that many of those protesting come from the middle classes, that a wide spectrum of parties are involved, and that El Baradei returned to Egypt gives some clue as to the preferred path that multinational Capital would like to see.

Phil said...

I think that's spot on.

Btw, the 4,096 character limit for comments is *really* annoying.

Chris said...

Fair point but that doesn't translate into a law for optimum capitalist accumulation but a law for peoples desire to live under liberal bourgeois democracy. A rather dangerous law for socialists to consider! And moreover it doesn't validate any attempt to formulate such a law.

Though the human desire for freedom currently being shown is awe inspiring and gives me great confidence that human nature (if such a thing exists) is more aligned to the left rather than the right.

Chris said...

From reading Boffy’s post (you kindly printed above) you would think it was the US and not the Egyptian people who were the main force behind current events. In this strange parallel universe the US are the motors of this revolution and the Egyptian people are reacting, rather than it being the US hastily reacting to unfolding events. And it nicely gets the US off the hook for supporting all those despots for all those years. As I said it beggars belief that such a view could have currency among the left.

Social Media expert DC said...

Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West's interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime. The diplomatic measures came after statements in Western capitals implying that the United States and European Union supported Mubarak's ouster.

modernity said...

Good analysis Phil,

PS: those last two entries are spam, throw them into Google and see.

Seth said...

"for example it was Liberals and Tories who established the Welfare State in the UK, and Tories who continued those systems in the 1950's, and 70's."

That's one reading. Melanie Klein argues in the Shock Doctrine that Capital provided concessions to Labour largely due to the Soviet alternative (or mass action and their dependence thereon in the 19th C, when Capital was less mobile).

Neither any longer exist. This means that "liberal democracy" now comes without the thrills, as it is enforced by the global trading bodies etc. Tunisia was sparked by an ending of price controls, anathema to modern globalised Friedmanite Capital.

My point is, that there could be a democratic socialist alternative because the inevitable exposure to the "shock doctrine" will create further unrest. The irony here is that a more leftist approach may be supported by the US etc as an alternative to Islamism, the new alternative.

Boffy said...


Its actually the four points above, not just two that are spam.

Boffy said...

I suppose the obvious objection to the Klein argument is that many of the social reforms of the 19th Century occurred after the working class upsurge of Chartism had been defeated. Municipalism developed largely as Engels says to deal with problems that also affected the bourgeoisie in the Towns, but the Towns were where that bouregoisie had its power, and the Muncipal local State did not suffer from the problems of "Rotten Boroughs" that existed in relation to Parliament.

Moreover, the initial moves towards Welfarism introduced by the Liberals at the beginning of the twentieth Century came prior to the USSR. I think that what they were in response to was a growing independent working class movement, represented in the extent and power of the Co-op, of the Trades Unions and the associated Friendly Societies. That can be most markedly seen in relation to Education where the Co-op had already developed a fairly extensive network of workers education, but most clearly in the response to the Plebs League and the National Labour Colleges. The bouregoisie sought to undermine them, and divert workers into State education not as a concession, but precisely to head off an independent workers alternative to the Capitalist State.

Finally, if it was an attempt to just buy off or make concessions to workers then the fact that the neville Chamberlain proposed the basis of the Welfare State in the 1920's, whilst Cuts were made in the 1930's when support for the USSR was probably at its height within the workers movement, does not seem to fit.

Boffy said...

A further point on the Klein argument. In 1997, it could hardly be argued that the British working class was strong and pressing on New Labour. The USSR was gone. Yet, New Labour introduced the Minimum Wage, measure the left had been calling for for decades. In addition it trebled expenditure on the NHS, and increased Public Spending on Education and other areas considerably.

Why? Firstly, if Capital is to effectively restructure it has to be away from low wage, low value production, and towards high value production. Hence the Minimum Wage. Secondly, in 1997, support for the NHS was at a record low of just just over 30%. Even now after trebling its budget, and though its at record highs it only stands at just over 60%.

If Capital is to get the Labour-Power it needs for that high-value production it needs workers to be much better educated - hence "Education, education, education", and the commitment to 50% into HE. But, there is no point having highly educated workers who are continually sick, or die early. Hence the spending on the NHS.

Chris said...

I think **Naomi** Klein (Melanie is the sister they don’t like to talk about!) has a point, the general movement of ruling class policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been in a neo liberal direction. I think this is a widely acknowledged fact. And various shocks to societies have been used as a pretext for implementing neo liberal policies, the classic example being the Soviet Union itself! Zizek makes the point that it wasn’t just socialism that was defeated in 1990 but Social democracy also. I think he has a point.

Though, of course, capitalism has seen the need to ‘alleviate’ many of its systematic problems, which it does through trial and error and cumulative experience. Whether a rising working class were there to challenge the ruling class or not would not change this fact. The problem with state capitalism is the democracy deficit, which allows an ever growing gap between society’s needs and vested interests. Measuring and analysing that gap needs more than Boffy’s dangerously wild speculations and distortions.

You could say the Condem policies of wrecking public provision are a show of confidence by the ruling class, who must now be having second thoughts with events in Egypt!

Phil said...

Re: spam, they're on topic promos of relevant blogs so they'll stay.

Phil said...

Coming back to your point Chris, neither Boffy and I are suggesting there's an iron law inexorably grinding history toward liberal democracy. That's a (right) Hegelian position beloved of Fukuyama and friends.

What we are arguing is the balance of class forces *at present* means liberal democratic regimes are the most likely outcomes of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. That doesn't preclude socialists working to deepen what organs of workers power exist - see the Revolutionary Socialists' statement above. But I think we have to be sober about these things.

Phil said...

I think you're onto something, Seth. If a centre left secular formation was to emerge from the Egyptian tumult at this present juncture the US State Department would prefer that to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Re: Naomi Klein's position, I think some of it overstates the Soviet menace. The postwar settlement in Britain rested on a strong labour movement too. If, for example, our side had won the Miners' Strike in 1984 the British economy would not have been torn apart by privatisations, closures, and free markets. Much of the settlement that's been thrown on the neoliberal bonfire these last 25 years would have still been with us, precisely because our movement would have been qualitatively stronger.

Phil said...

Incidentally, this piece by Paul Mason on global protest is very insightful. I hope to write something on it in the week, work permitting.

Boffy said...


I saw the Paul Mason bit, which echoes some of the arguments I've been making, so obviously thought it was good. But, I'm not at all sure about the Twitter/Meme stuff. Nor is he, it seems, because as he says, we haven't seen a Tianenmen in Egypt yet. I don't disagree with Lenin on a lot of things about effective revolutionary organisation and tactics.

On that point, I'm not sure I would agree that the most likely outcome in Egypt is a Liberal democracy, as I've been writing
in a five part blog. I think the US/EU would prefer a liberal democracy - even a left reformist one as you say - but, I'm not sure they have the power to bring it about. They can make strong suggestions, they can use their back channels through the military, but a Bonapartist State does exhibit some of the trits of a ruling class. If Mubarak sticks to his guns, and the protests subside then as 1848 showed, he'll come back with terror and repression. If there is chaos then either the Army will step in, or the Brotherhood will step in.

But, you are right, a socialist revolution is not possible under current conditions.

On Britain after 1984. I only agree in part. If the Miners had won in 1984, we might have got a Leftish Government, and it would have been pressed from below, but Capital would have fled. A sclerotic economy would have collapsed more than it did. There may have been nuances such as using North Sea Oil to finance investment, and build up reserves as Norway did, but that's a longer term change.

In short I don't think the attack of the 1980's was due to any "ideological shift", but was merely Capital acting in a way it couldn't really avoid. The ideological shift was merely a reflection of it.