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The Egyptian Revolution’s Next Barrier
When the Egyptian army first began its offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood, many speculated that such an assault would likely be extended to the same revolutionaries who demanded — in massive demonstrations — that President Morsi be evicted from office.
There have been several signs that this has already begun, though most notably the government repression against striking workers at Suez Steel and the Scimitar Petroleum company, where the striking workers were accused of being influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Two recent terrorist bombings in Cairo that targeted top government officials–as well as increased violence in the Sinai region — could portend a Syria scenario for Egypt, unless revolutionaries are able to assert themselves again with the intention of out maneuvering the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood, saving Egypt in the process.
The power of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been weakened significantly, at least for the moment. The recent protests called by the MB after the break up of their sit-ins have been met with insufficient support in the streets, though especially from the broader population beyond the MB base.
A recent opinion poll showed that 67 percent of Egyptians approved of the brutal way that the MB sit-ins were broken up. The Brotherhood’s leadership is in jail, its rank and file fearful, and the much of the broader population apparently wants them out of public sight and mind.
The latest move by the military regime against the Brotherhood was an Egyptian judicial panel supporting the removal of the legal status of the organization as an NGO. This came in the aftermath of a bomb attack on a police station in central Cairo on Monday, September 2.
The still-chaotic happenings in Egypt make sense only in a broader context, requiring that we look back at recent events, at which point an understanding may emerge that can help shed light on what to do next.
Reducing politics to condemning violence explains very little, especially when one considers why most Egyptians didn’t feel the way the international community did about the internal battles raging in Egypt. The revolutionary process in Egypt has been especially contradictory, requiring that a proper analysis untangle all of the political knots.
In 2011, the initial revolutionary wave of protests led to the removal — not the overthrow, but the removal by the military — of the dictator Mubarak. The social conditions that led to Mubarak’s downfall were a general sense of desperation about the conditions of daily life by the majority of the Egyptian people, most of them working class and poor, but including also the economically devastated middle classes.
The Egyptian people did not take to the streets with a clear platform that would address their abject misery. They thus expressed their frustration by denouncing their existing conditions in general terms. The complex system oppressing them thus became crystallized in the symbolic person of Mubarak — so the people in the streets demanded his removal. This, thought the masses, would address their many social-economic problems.
At this adolescent stage of the revolution anybody who had a large organization — and was out of power but wanted to be in power — could say, “YES! Mubarak should go, and our organization will do anything to make that happen.” The Brotherhood was such a group, and it used its vast organizational capabilities — in Egypt every mosque in every village is a de-facto organization — and belatedly joined the revolution under the “Mubarak must go!” slogan.
It was the youth section of the Brotherhood that forced their leadership to join the revolution, and after becoming “revolutionaries” the MB worked to limit the further deepening of the politics of the revolution, freezing the movement in its generalized, adolescent stage, which was too immature to question the regime behind Mubarak. “Islam is the answer” remained the MB’s slogan, which, after being put into government policy, offered Egyptians no answer at all.
After the fall of Mubarak, the MB hurried to join the regime that had propped up Mubarak — with all its policies, security apparatus linked to the U.S. government, with all its ties to the neoliberal agenda of the imperialists of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and western banks — in short, the MB completely immersed itself with the old regime, while slapping on a thick coat of Islamist veneer to make the surface seem “Islamic” to the MB rank and file. The rest of Egyptian society was completely ignored, revolution be damned.
Through a farce of an electoral system the MB joined the military regime — an alliance deemed necessary at the time by the ruling elites, though with clear internal contradictions — ensuring that the two maintained joint control while working to coerce the revolution into submission. All the while the broader social and economic discontent that led to the revolution would be — as it was under Mubarak — completely neglected, and even denied any legitimacy.
By most standards, real democracy is not merely having elections or some form of parliamentary rule. If any elected government refuses to govern in the interests of the population, it is by definition ”undemocratic.”
True democracy also involves the rights of the working class to organize and exact concessions from the employers and the elite in general, as well as to have a real say — through independent representative organizations — in the economic and political decisions that affect their lives. Based on these indicators, we can see that the political direction taken by the military-Muslim Brotherhood coalition was clearly anti-democratic, regardless of MB’s protestations to the contrary.
New independent labor unions started springing up immediately after the fall of Mubarak, quite naturally, as the working class saw the onset of the revolution as a perfect time to exercise their democratic rights to assert their power through the collective bargaining process for better working and living conditions. The number of these new unions began rising sharply as a result of the newly opened up political space.
Labor strikes and direct actions had been on an upward spiral for years preceding Mubarak’s fall: for example, in 2008 there was a general strike. The Middle East Research and Information Project reports:
“Despite the limited capacity of [newly created independent unions] to mobilize at the national level, for the last two and a half years, workers have escalated the protest movement that began in the late 1990s. In the decade before Mubarak’s ouster well over 2 million workers participated in some 3,400 strikes and other collective actions. The total number of workers collective actions in 2011 was 1,400; in 2012 it reached 1,969. According to the Egyptian Center for Social Rights (ECESR), in the first quarter of 2013 there were 2,400 social and economic protests. At least half involved workers and publicly employed professionals — doctors, engineers and teachers.”
The MB government took a very clear stance against the demands of the resurgent labor movement that was trying to further open up the political and economic social dialogue, and gains some basic rights.
In fact, public pronouncements by the MB, the military and elite media outlets were unanimous in their characterization of the labor direct actions as petty and selfish, thereby de-legitimizing those demands and refusing to allow for any new rights for collective bargaining by workers.
MB members and spokespersons even went so far as to characterize such workers’ demands as “counter revolutionary.” In other words, the MB-military coalition arrogated to themselves the title of true revolutionaries while the very demands that fueled the revolution were now characterized as counter-revolutionary!
However, not all segments of the ruling elites were as overtly antagonistic to the working class economic demands. Some in the ruling coalition clearly recognized that they would not be able to stop the tide of workers raising their demands in such a revolutionary period. Therefore, they opted to chose to co-opt some of the labor union leaders by integrating them into the government.
The fundamental mistake made by the MB was joining the old regime during a revolutionary upsurge, the time that the wrath of the people had just found its public expression. Decades of bottled up resentment had now found a voice, and while Egyptians gave the MB some time to address it, revolutionary energy would not be so easily stifled.
Instead of tackling the crisis of youth unemployment in Egypt by revolutionary means, the MB ignored it, and overall unemployment has been rising from 9 percent in 2011 to 13 percent, with youth unemployment at 25 percent. The MB thought that they could take the helm of a revolution while taking zero revolutionary action to address the structural issues that gave rise to it. In fact, the MB worked hard to maintain those conditions.
It was inevitable, then, that a revolution on the scale of Egypt’s would not lie dormant in the face of such flagrant neglect. In fact, during the MB’s reign there was activity across all social strata, as Egyptians learned to use their new voice. Labor unions continued to strike, student groups and others continued to organize, and all the while the dignity that all these groups continued to demand was never granted. This process placed the revolutionary movement, once again, in direct opposition to the state apparatus, this time led by the MB.
Since the new face of the state had acquired a religious covering — on top of the old economic and political miseries still firmly in place — it was natural that the most vociferous oppositions would be directed against this newly added feature of the revamped dictatorship. Hence, the main demand of the massive June 30th-July 3rd demonstrations was for the ouster of the MB, personified by Morsi. The revolutionary energy re-found its focus and targeted a new obstacle to be overcome in its path towards social and economic dignity.
The fact that the military used the MB as the scapegoat and threw them out so swiftly, of course, creates a critical dilemma. The fight for political power in Egypt is now a three-sided brawl: the military, the MB, and the real revolutionaries, who are trying to express the broader population’s economic and social demands. In this power struggle, the forces of counterrevolution have two dogs in the fight: the military and the MB.
The fact that these two mongrels have gone from uneasy allies to savage enemies — even if temporarily — makes no difference as far as their political attitude towards the revolution goes. Their anti-revolutionary perspective is, of course, tied to their economic interests, which are existentially tied to the existing economic system, from which the overwhelming majority of Egyptians gain absolutely nothing but misery.
The military had to discard their MB short-term partnership because they saw that this partnership had not managed to halt the revolution, and that, in fact, the movement was finding more depth — digging deeper would be dangerous for the military. The military had to throw out the MB and then provoke them into reactive violence, which the MB did resort to via burning churches, killing a 100 plus police/military personnel, etc. This enabled and “justified” the generals’ unleashing massive military might to crush the MB, and if left unchecked, eventually the revolution.
It would be a crucial mistake to join the Muslim Brotherhood’s side in the ongoing fratricidal conflict between them and the military, as many liberal-minded people are doing. It’s of course natural to side with a group under attack from a stronger adversary, and it was perfectly acceptable to demand an immediate end to the military’s offensive. But to demand the return of Morsi to power is to place oneself on the wrong side of the barricades.
American liberals might be swayed by Juan Cole’s description of the Muslim Brotherhood, correctly labeling them as the Egyptian equivalent of the American Tea Party movement, a grouping that is on the political right of the Republican Party, and at times in conflict with the Republicans. Like the MB, the Tea Party relies on neo-liberal economics combined with religious fundamentalism.
“But even so,” some liberals may claim, “the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, and we must protect democracy.” But democracy also takes place in the streets, and the massive demonstrations that led to Morsi’s ouster were at least as large as the revolutionary demonstrations that ousted Mubarak, when no one questioned whether or not a revolution was afoot.
Furthermore, the demonstrations called by the Muslim Brotherhood did not find a broader echo beyond their rank and file: the only large demonstrations occurred in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Nasser City and parts of Alexandria. Thus, the MB knew that their demand — the reinstatement of Morsi — could not be achieved by the current balance of forces; they purposely provoked a crisis to remain politically relevant, perhaps to use as a bargaining chip against the military. But the MB leadership underestimated the military’s audacity, and now the MB is facing decapitation.
The MB belatedly realized the politics of revolution; after the masses were ignored and even antagonized by the MB, the people refused to rally to their defense when the military attacked. The masses rallied instead to the side of the attackers, which, under the circumstances, seemed to many as the only way to keep the MB from retaining state power.
This is where some Egyptian revolutionaries stumbled. So eager were they to overcome the immediate obstacle of the Muslim Brotherhood that they gave unconditional support to the military to remove this obstacle for them. It seemed practical to overcome the revolution’s most immediate problem — the MB — by using another enemy of the revolution, the generals. But a policy of pragmatism isn’t suited for the complex issues that the revolution is facing.
The Egyptian left and labor movement failed to put forth a united, independent solution in the face of the July 3rd “popular coup” and the crisis provoked by the MB’s militant civil disobedience response. Some on the left even gave their public blessing and a blank check to the military to “deal with” the Brotherhood, akin to bringing a tiger into the home to deal with a rat infestation.
The military was thus allowed to take the initiative, and during times of crisis the will to act is a major ingredient for victory. The revolutionaries had a valid fear of the Muslim Brotherhood since they represent a major threat to the revolution, but now another foe of the revolution, the military, is stronger than it’s been in years, and has quickly regained its position as the revolution’s primary obstacle.
Overcoming obstacles is a constant feature of all revolutions. After overcoming the obstacles of Mubarak and Morsi, the revolution will seek to steamroll over the next hurdle in its path; the millions of people who demanded Morsi’s removal have not disappeared, nor have they been cowed into silence.
Many analysts view each obstacle as insurmountable and have thus declared the revolution dead after every stage. When Morsi was elected, the revolution was declared dead; and when the revolution flared by the millions to oust Morsi, the revolution was quickly declared dead again when the generals used terror against the Brotherhood.
But the current support for the military is inevitably temporary, since the demands that continue to fuel the revolution will soon become the focus. This is why the military is eager to put forth a new face to their regime in the form of another set of speedy elections or “national salvation government” that was cobbled together on July 3rd. The military itself remains incapable of directly confronting the revolution, whose is strength is growing.
But after each obstacle is overcome, the revolution deepens its analysis and strengthens its morale, since nothing fuels revolution like success. The July 3rd “popular coup” still resonates as a major victory of the revolution, regardless of the bloodshed that followed. Every time the people exert their power in the streets and win their demands, the revolution gains immense strength, since the power of the people is re-affirmed.
The ultimate goal of the revolution is resolving the fundamental social and economic issues that gave birth to it; these are the problems that prevent the majority of Egyptians from living a dignified life, while these same problems enrich a tiny minority of Egyptians — and foreigners — at the expense of everybody else. This is the focus that Egyptian revolutionaries must unite under, and it must be done soon.
Egyptians must unite around a set of necessary and revolutionary measures, such as the reversal of the privatization of public industries that have resulted in layoffs, lower wages, and factory closures; the end to all IMF and World Bank dictated policies — a demand that would include Egypt refusing to repay any more of the debts that Mubarak and his cronies racked up. A crucial demand is for a national jobs program to create new — and reinforce older — public works projects. Such a jobs program could be funded by re-nationalizing Egypt’s previously privatized public banks, such as the Bank of Alexandria that was sold to Italy in 2006.
Organizing around such concrete socio-economic issues takes away from the importance of whether or not one is a Muslim — or of what particular denomination — and focuses the struggle on the real class issues that underlie the revolution and continue to breathe life into it.
Such organizing will also help to put an abrupt end to the possibility of a prolonged civil war, which would benefit both sides of the counter-revolution by hiding the political issues that the Muslim Brotherhood and the generals refuse to address. A civil war — perhaps of the Syrian variety — would bolster the Muslim Brotherhood in that they would retain their cadre — and possibly new foreign fighters to wage jihad against the military. In such a scenario, the military would retain the allegiance of many Egyptians who simply want their safety protected.
The only way to prevent this is by directing the revolutionary energy towards solving the actual social problems of Egyptians, which would attract both the rank and file soldier and rank and file Muslim Brother. One of the original slogans of the revolution was: “They are eating pigeon and chicken, but we eat beans everyday.”
To prevent the possibility of a civil war between the Islamists and the military regime, the Egyptian revolutionaries must take the initiative. If the rank and file of the Nasserite Party, the Tamaroud movement, the April 6th movement, socialist and trade union groups, and others put forth a united set of demands to resolve the economic crisis by taking revolutionary action, the true voice of the revolution will have found a common platform, a potent expression, and the power of the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood will instantly be weakened, since the rank and file of both groups would be natural recruits and would most likely be drawn to such demands.
These concrete demands would finally expose the class regime behind Mubarak and Morsi, leading the people to eventually demand that the regime itself be targeted, resulting in a more conscious revolutionary movement that the military would be unable to control.