Wednesday 14 August 2013

Egypt's Day of Terror

Egypt's day of terror has been brewing for a long time. 18 months ago, Mubarak's regime suffered a mortal body blow on Egypt's Day of Rage as millions poured onto the streets. Approximately two weeks later Mubarak had been swept from power by an alliance of convenience of ancien regime opponents, and a military presenting itself as a neutral arbiter and guarantor of stability. The problem then became one typical of the fall of all authoritarian governments. They are brittle things, despite the varying levels of repression they mete out during their life time. Yet the whole apparatus of secret policemen and stupid brutality can temporarily keep a lid on the contradictions building up. Following Mubarak's overthrow there was less a carnival of the oppressed and more a maelstrom of political antagonism, looting and violence, and it could not be otherwise.

Then came Egypt's brief foray into liberal democracy. For a country as volatile as Egypt and with many of "tasks" of the revolution unfulfilled, rushing headlong into the model of a winner-takes-all presidency similar to the United States was probably not the most thought-through of constitutional moves. It works in the US because the main parties are qualitatively the same. It works in Britain because the cleavage along which the two main parties line up has long been rendered stable and institutionalised. It's almost as if a US-style presidency was chosen because it was bound to fail. But even had a less adversarial system been arrived at, governing post-revolutionary Egypt would have been a tough thanks to the protests, disputes, pogroms against Coptics, economic crisis, and Islamist incursions in the Sinai. More seriously from the point of view of the new government's viability was that the  state was shot through with dual power, of sorts.

In Marxist accounts of revolution, dual power has a very exact meaning. It refers to a fleeting moment in the revolutionary process where the traditional classes retain their grip on the old state machinery, but running in parallel and institutionally opposed to it is a state form in embryo: the network of directly elected representatives of working people organised into councils or soviets. This cannot remain the case indefinitely, one has to win out at the expense of the other. But I'm going to muddy the categorical waters. Egypt throughout Morsi's tenure was subject to dual power of a different kind. You had the civilian administration enjoying, at least on paper, the legitimacy of the country's first elected presidency. But opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood's president was the military that, in 2011, acted in a Bonapartist fashion to prevent revolutionary "excess". The state for the last year was, in effect, the site of an institutional civil war. Of manoeuvres of place and position, of hirings and firings. Unfortunately for the Muslim Brotherhood, while they were disadvantaged in this game from the moment Morsi took office their man was far from an astute player. Dishing out decrees is not the way to negotiate a delicate situation, for instance.

When popular forces opposed to Morsi took to the streets time had run out for the government. It was an opportunity for military hawks to remove a movement from power they had repressed all their careers. However, historical necessity also came into play. Just as in 2011, Egypt's armed forces were no institutional island. Rank-and-file personnel come from families directly affected by unemployment, falling wages and poverty. The revolutionary pressures that brought the millions out onto the streets affected the troops like a virus. Had the top brass set their face against it, a split in the armed forces was likely - as we have seen in other Arab Spring revolutions - or they would have been swept away by a junior officer takeover. The army can act like a Bonaparte, as a 'third force' rising above when contending classes and class fractions are balanced out and unable to shift one another. But this too is conditioned by and subject to those ebbs and flows.

The military were pressured on pain of a second, perhaps more uncertain and bloody revolution to make their move. But in resolving one set of contradictions several more, hydra-like, sprung up in their place. Morsi now "enjoys" the protection of the army but what to do about the Muslim Brotherhood who, despite occupying a spectrum of Islamist opinion and representing neither rising nor progressive social forces, nevertheless command massive support and millions of votes? Governments of whatever stripe facing an insurgency typically have two options that don't necessarily exclude one another: co-option and repression. Unfortunately for the military and their puppet civilian administration, their promised transition to democratic rule "as soon as possible" forestalled as soon as they removed Morsi from office. The Muslim Brotherhood is not an homogenous lump, but bonds of solidarity and collective experience have continually been reinforced over decades of underground existence. Barely one year into democratic rule in "ordinary" times it would be horrendously difficult to split and co-opt parts of such a movement into a power sharing arrangement. But impossible when the army and its allies in the state machinery had stymied and resisted the Brotherhood from the day of Morsi's inauguration. Getting them to engage with the reconciliation/power sharing process, in whole or in part, was never going to happen.

Yet the relatively peaceful permanent protest camps could not be allowed to stand either. In and of themselves they were not disruptive despite what government spokespeople say, but they weighed on the military's brains like an Alp. In Egypt's febrile conjuncture each camp was a reminder that not only did a mass Islamist opposition still exist, but also that - despite the popular support the military can command - it faced an equally popular movement, and one that could capitalise on economic and political discontent and grow further. It could not stand and today the military have tried to drown this possibility in blood.

Where now? The Brotherhood are back underground and the declaration of a state of emergency signals a return to dictatorship. And so the wheel appears to have turned full circle. The revolution is stalled and democracy, as stilted as it was, is dead. At least for the moment. By acting in this way the military now puts itself in the firing line. The antagonism between it and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be resolved institutionally, but it too will be unable to meet the hopes of the millions who begged it to take power. As a new underground war against the Brotherhood starts smiting other perceived enemies of the new regime, and for as long as Egypt's protracted economic problems go unresolved the generals sitting very pretty tonight could find arrayed against them the bulk of the nation's population in a short space of time. And what then?


Boffy said...


You are right to "muddy" the waters. There are in reality three unequal powers in society not two. There is the social/economic power. What Marx would call Civil Society. There is the State Power, which comprises the permanent state apparatus that acts as the "Executive Committee" of the ruling class, and there is the Governmental Power, which represents the actual political regime, i.e. the Government in a bourgeois democracy, the Royal Court in Feudal society etc.

Since Lenin, there has been a tendency to consider the Governmental power as simply part of the state power. Yet even in Lenin's analysis of Tsarism there is a necessary contradiction. He recognised the state in Russia as a Capitalist State. His early polemics against the Narodniks made exactly that point. It acted in the interests of capital, which socially, but not yet politically was the ruling class, its interests, its ideas were dominant.

Yet, Tsarism indicated the need for a political revolution. The bourgeoisie did not have hegemony over the political power. Even in Britain, long after capital had captured State power with the Glorious Revolution, it did not have control over the political power. The landlord class dominated Parliament even until the end of the 19th Century.

Marxists have to understand these differences to understand places like Egypt. Why is it the transition to bourgeois social democracy was fairly easy in Latin America over the last 30 years by comparison? Because the cross cutting cleavages of MENA did not exist. Capital has learned how to manage the conflict between capital and labour. That is what a bourgeois social democracy represents. Workers are socialised via their own organisations such as Trades Unions, and Parties based on the same reformist ideology. Particularly, where growing economies allow that path to be smoothed it is effective.

But, in MENA there are numerous vertical cleavages - sex, religion, tribe etc. Accommodating them is not so easy. That is why these countries developed Bonapartist regimes in the first place! Only an independent workers movement able to cut across the various vertical cleavages can lead the way forward. Appeals for everyone to simply become good liberal democrats are utopian.

David Duff said...

As I understand it, part of the Muslim Brotherhood's problem was that during their years in the wilderness they fell to criticising each other for lack of philosophical 'purity' which ended with the expulsion of the more moderate/sensible (you choose!) elements. Thus, when they took power it really was a case of the loonies running the asylum!

Anonymous said...

To quote Pham Binh:

"Morsi and co. were hardly repressive during their administration — for example, not one T.V. station was shut down for criticizing the president, a first in Egyptian history. The killings in places like Port Said were the work of fulool, not Morsi and co. despite what the Egypt’s hysterical left-liberals would have us believe."

PS They didn't take power, they were elected. It was the secularist, liberal middle classes who took power and put back in place despotism. It is good to see that the right (eg Duff) embrace once again despotic rule. I have always found the right's embracing of democracy quite laughable, they should show their true colours more often. Honesty is always a good policy.

Hopefully the secularist liberals can now shut the fuck up about democracy, the violence of Islamism and their love of 'enlightenment' values. When push comes to shove they believe in brute force and mass murder, just like the extremists.

Phil said...

Indeed Boffy, and those appeals are unlikely to go anywhere and be picked up by no one - least of all a military whose top brass are guilty of very serious crimes and could expect a trial if civilian rule in Egypt becomes the hegemonic way of doing things.

I am intrigued to know whatever happened to the Egyptian Communist Party which, I understand, used to be a significant force.

Phil said...

Yes Anon, the Brotherhood were very much in office and not in power. I think the liberals and the friendly por-Westerners, like our friend ElBaradei (who, to his credit, has at least stepped down in protest against the massacre) are very much of the school "after the Brotherhood, us!" Perhaps as long as they don't try to clip the military's wings - which any civilian administration will be compelled to do.