From A World to Win News Service

Egypt: A Crucial Moment

December 23, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


December 11, 2012. A World to Win News Service, by Samuel Albert.

Almost two years since a mass upheaval brought down Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's future is still being fought out in every sphere of society and in the streets. The question of what will replace him has still not been resolved as of the writing of this article, and may not be fully settled for some time to come.

Right now two opposed political coalitions, led by those who call themselves "liberals" on one side and Islamists on the other, are pulling much of the rest of society into their respective camps in an attempt to impose one or another of their opposite but reactionary solutions. Yet stability will be difficult to obtain because still at work are the deep underlying contradictions in Egyptian society that burst through the surface of the earth almost without warning on January 25, 2011.

The situation poses real and perhaps intractable problems not only for the Egyptian ruling classes but the imperialist rulers of the U.S. as well. While the Moslem Brotherhood may be their best available option under the circumstances, that's only one side of the question. The dynamics between the Moslem Brotherhood and the Islamic Salafists in Egypt are conditioned by other conflicts. There is an inherent contradiction between the U.S. need to call on Islamic legitimacy to shore up its regional domination, and the role of Israel as the most reliable enforcer of that domination. Further, the rise of political Islam is a global phenomenon that continues to challenge the U.S. ideologically and politically. The development of this situation is unpredictable and could turn unfavorable for the U.S.

All this should not make us forget the achievements of the battle to topple Mubarak. It took 18 days of fighting and sacrifice before the Egyptian armed forces and the U.S. were forced to abandon him for fear that the country would become totally ungovernable.

The atmosphere in Egypt went from one of sullen submission to one of joyful insubordination. The anti-Mubarak upheaval arose with little warning in a country where political activity had been confined to small groups of people. Now many millions of Egyptians feel that they can and should have a say about their own and their country's fate and have become deeply involved in pondering, arguing and fighting over what kind of country they want. By fits and starts at key junctures, and now maybe on an even bigger scale, the masses of people are being drawn into political life.

In this sense, the "Arab Spring" has brought about a changed situation in many countries. Millions of people are still unwilling to live in the old way, and in the old order—regimes, political institutions, social values and the dominant ideas—can't just go on as it did for deadly decades.

Now the alignments of forces that made it possible to bring down hated regimes are changing, and the situation is far more complex and difficult for those who remain profoundly dissatisfied with their lives and their countries and the world. But the potential for large sections of people to quickly learn crucial lessons is also greatly heightened—if a clear revolutionary communist perspective can emerge amidst the turmoil and struggle.

Almost two years ago the "revolutionaries," as they called themselves, seized the initiative from all the old political forces and won a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the broader population. Their unclarity about their ultimate goal—sometimes displayed like a badge of honor—didn't stop them because the cleavages in Egyptian society were still somewhat obscured. Pro-Western liberals, for instance, were somewhat aligned with them, and the Islamists, as an organized force, were not fighting for either side.

The situation is different now. The youth groups have lost the initiative not only in the practical realm of armed militias and soldiers and tanks, but in the realm of ideas, because they have been unable to present a convincing vision—or themselves conceive—of an Egypt that could offer the vast majority of people something other than harsh, stunted lives and bitter humiliation.

Right now a defining—but not the only—feature of the situation is the rivalry between reactionary forces with competing programs for how to bring this period of upheaval to an end and restore order. In fact, it is the Islamists who have the initiative and are pressing hardest.

The Islamists—the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafists they are currently allied with—are very clear on what they want. While the draft constitution they are determined to ram through is not dramatically different than Egypt's 1971 Constitution, which abandoned the secular nationalism and populist demagogy of the Nasser years and enshrined Islam as the state religion, the goal now is to bring religion into the very heart of what's considered legitimate and tolerable and use it as a club against any kind of opposition.

There are unmistakable indications of this in the text of the draft constitution. It is plain in some of what it says, such as forbidding whatever is considered insulting to Sunni Islam (and, to be fair, Christianity and Judaism) and the stipulations upholding Islamic—patriarchal—family values. It is no less plain in what it doesn't say. For instance, while proclaiming that men and women are equal, it was specifically decided not to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender. The absence of this phrase reveals a whole world outlook and political program.

Any apparent vagueness of these words disappears on the street. An Islamist march is a march of bearded men. Whether under the green flags of the Brotherhood or the black flags of the Salafists, the chants are for the implementation of Sharia. Sometimes they carry the flag of Saudi Arabia, an Islamist model because of its mix of traditional relations, advanced technology, and wealth.

When they chant, "Bread, freedom and Sharia" (in opposition to the anti-Mubarak chant "Bread, freedom and social justice"), what they seek is not the freedom to practice their religion—which no one contests—but to impose it on all of society. (More on this chant later.) Their actions in the streets, as well as in the presidential palace, have made it clear that they consider this aim non-negotiable.

On November 22, Moslem Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree putting his decisions beyond the reach of the courts that were interfering with the writing of the draft constitution and its submission to a referendum. Soon after, the Islamists held a major demonstration on the campus of Cairo University (the fact that the country's biggest public university is an Islamist stronghold says a great deal about the spread of Islamism to a huge section of urban professionals and the wealthy). Those opposed to the Brotherhood's move rallied in Tahrir Square, focusing on what they considered Morsi's power grab, as if personal power were his highest goal. Many people seemed to think that invoking "democracy" and legality was the most favorable basis to rally opposition to Morsi.

But by December 4, it became clear to all that the most important issue was not whether the executive office should be overseen by the judiciary, but Morsi's determination to submit the now-completed draft constitution to a referendum. He was confident that he could win the majority of votes—as he had won the presidency—and then, in the name of the will of the people, impose religious rule.

On that day, at least 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the presidential palace, the Ittihadiya, in the Cairo suburb Heliopolis. They eventually broke through police lines, forcing Morsi to flee temporarily. Nothing like that ever happened before, even during the very last days of Mubarak. (There was some question as to whether the youth fought harder this time, or the police melted away more quickly.) The protesters set up tents on the grounds and announced their intention to stay until Morsi rescinded his decrees and postponed the referendum.

The next morning, cell phones rang all over Cairo and many rural areas. Buses were sent to bring men to "defend our president" against "counter-revolutionaries." They reinforced an initial contingent of Morsi supporters who had swept through the area around the palace, tearing down tents and attacking the sit-inners, who had dwindled to a few hundred in number. Later that afternoon, an even larger number of anti-Morsi forces came to the palace to press their demands in the face of extreme violence.

It was, an observer remarked, like the "Battle of the Camel without the camel," referring to a turning point in the upsurge against Mubarak, on February 2, 2011, when Mubarak thugs riding camels and horses and on foot, wielding whips, swords, clubs and rocks, attacked the Tahrir Square sit-in, and the protesters defended themselves with equal ferocity. The animals, used to drive tourists around the nearby pyramid in Giza, were meant not only to terrify the crowd but portray "authentic," traditional Egyptians beating so-called decadent, Westernized youth. (The battle's name also has religious resonance, signifying the Sunni defeat of the future Shias in the 7th century.)

This time again, journalists, bloggers and other eyewitnesses say, the attackers were something between a mob and an armed and organized militia, sometimes ignored by the police, sometimes backed by them. A few men fired at demonstrators with shotguns loaded with birdshot pellets and occasionally bullets. Once again, they were supposed to be the voice of the real Egypt intervening in a privileged neighborhood.

An iconic and now viral video captures the character of that confrontation. It shows a group of bare-headed women led by Shahendra Makhled. This elderly Heliopolis resident is legendary for her radical activism going back to the Nasser years. She organized a march of women (a secular statement in itself) to the palace, hoping to use moral authority to protect the youth from the Islamist attackers. A large bearded man clamps his hand tightly over her mouth for a few seconds until she defiantly pushes him away. The other women chant, "We are all Egyptians (masri)." In disagreement and disbelief, the men yell, "Morsi, Morsi." (El Watan website)

Both sides fought with crowbars, paving stones and knives. Among the at least eight dead or dying by the next morning was a doctor shot on his way home after leaving an emergency medical tent near the palace. More than 1,600 people were reportedly treated for wounds.

What was different, however, from the "Battle of the Camel" is that then, for all the people they killed and injured, the Mubarak forces lost the battle for public opinion. The legitimacy of the protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere across the country grew—many people who remained politically passive came to believe that the Tahrir youth had right on their side. The reactionary forces were isolated and could not sustain their offensive.

That is not the case with the Islamists today. At the height of the anti-Mubarak movement, "The people want the fall of the regime" was basically true, even though the active element was unquestionably a minority, as it almost always is. Today "the people" are clearly divided, and legitimacy and moral right are more strongly contested.

While some people call Morsi "Mubarak with a beard" and repeat the old demand for the fall of the regime, others portray that as a lack of respect for democracy. The concept of democracy in which the vote of the majority is called the will of the people and the source of political authority and legitimacy has been the defining discourse, not only of the self-avowed liberals but most of the youth who consider themselves revolutionaries and the left parties that are often to their right politically. Now it has become one of the two clubs wielded by the Islamists. Yet there is nothing democratic about them in terms of, to take an often-cited and sharp example, whether or not women and children are the property of men.

The intensity of the contest over legitimacy is related to the fact that Egypt's ruling classes are themselves more sharply divided than when it was a question of getting rid of Mubarak and his clique.

The Egyptian state—the armed forces, police, courts, immense and almost omnipresent bureaucracy, etc., has remained almost untouched through this whole process. Yet the divisions within the ruling classes and the political situation in general are weakening the state, no matter what anyone might want.

When Morsi was elected in July, at first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took the reins of government from Mubarak's hands resisted turning over much power to him. After a period of pushing and pulling at the top typical of divided ruling classes, they suddenly reversed their position and stepped back from the front lines of governance.

The Moslem Brotherhood is not contesting the power of the state; it is attempting to encrust itself in it. Although Morsi attacked Mubarak-era judges when he first declared his government beyond the reach of the judiciary, now he seems to be seeking to appease them. The draft constitution preserves the economic perks, political prerogatives and enormous size of the armed forces, and the generals' autonomy from civilian oversight. When Morsi gave the army the authority to intervene in the streets and arrest people on December 10, armed forces representatives welcomed this affirmation of their familiar role as guarantor of order.

As became obvious when army troops and tanks moved in to defend the presidential palace, building a concrete wall around it to keep out demonstrators, right now restoring order means making Morsi's referendum possible. If the judiciary agrees to declare the voting fair and legal, he might win his gamble.

Now it is often the Islamists who are chanting, "The people and the army are one hand." It's painful to hear some of the opposition try to revive that old, disastrously mistaken slogan with the idea that the police and/or armed forces are going to protect them.

What the Egyptian armed forces and the U.S. will do is not clear, but Morsi's attempts to build an alliance with the armed forces and the U.S. are unmistakable.

Whatever the army does is likely to be coordinated with the U.S. The explanation for the Egyptian army's apparent change of heart about Morsi last summer is to be found in the White House. Later, Morsi made his bid for supremacy the day after the U.S. heartily hailed him as a proven "statesman" for having used his influence over Hamas to broker a ceasefire with Israel. When his decree and the ensuing protests plunged Egypt into crisis, U.S. President Barack Obama called Morsi to discuss the matter. Quoting White House sources, the newspaper Al Ahram reported on December 7, "Obama urged opposition leaders to take part in talks with the president without preconditions." That amounted to endorsing Morsi's position.

It is certainly no coincidence that one of the few legislative measures he took under his new powers, other than to push through the referendum, was to approve new taxes and budget reductions required by the IMF. (On December 11, these measures and the negotiations had to be put on hold due to "political instability"—maybe because it was not the right time for the regime to be seen groveling before international capital.)

The anti-Morsi opposition shares his respect for the state, which is another advantage for Morsi at the moment. Amr Moussa, a minister and top diplomat under Mubarak and now one of the two main leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front, told BBC that he is against the revival of the cry, "The people want the fall of the regime." "We are not aiming to topple the President," he said. "We are not aiming to do anything that would lead to the disintegration of the state."

It's not true, as Morsi claims, that the opposition to him is comprised of hired hands and spearheaded by faeloul, remnants of the Mubarak regime. But such people are playing a prominent role in public, and probably more so behind the scenes, through the police, organized thugs and so on. The one consistent role of the police since Mubarak's fall, besides shooting and beating people, has been to foment disorder—disorganizing traffic, tolerating rape, robbery and the black marketeering of daily essentials such as cooking fuel. All this adds to the sense of exhausting chaos that makes life hard for everyone and especially the poor. The country needs order and authority. The question is what kind.

Many of the judges who have opposed Morsi's power grab were appointed under Mubarak. The Salafists who have been conducting a sit-in to demand a purge of what they call Mubarak-tainted personalities from state television are clearly trying to shut down their critics while their own talk show hosts run wild with rumors and outrageous lies, but they have a point: much of the power structure from top to bottom—including many prominent liberal politicians—has been tainted and even discredited by its role under Mubarak. Of course the Moslem Brotherhood has to tread lightly on this question, because it, too, sometimes functioned as a loyal and legitimizing opposition under Mubarak, and would like to pretend that the armed forces they are now courting were neutral.

These are further indications of the persistence of the old regime, the continuing infighting among the ruling classes and the messiness and fluidity of a situation that is not as clearly defined by two neatly arrayed sides as it might seem.

The acknowledged chief of the opposition is Mohammed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front which encompasses all the liberal and most leftist parties and overlaps with the youth organizations. Mubarak's party, the SCAF and the Brotherhood have all courted him at one time or another. He often turns up in Tahrir Square and makes statements in defense of the youth.

He has a reputation as clean, courageous and uncompromising—but for what goal? Even if it were possible to have the kind of Egypt he promises—an Egypt without corruption or torture but as tightly linked to foreign capital and the international market as it was under Mubarak, with all the inevitably resulting impoverishment, backwardness and inequalities for the masses of people—how could that satisfy the demand for "bread, freedom and social justice"?

In fact, it's hard to see how any government of an Egypt whose people are kept in despair by an imperialist-dependent ruling class could ever do without vicious repression and even torture. It may supply bread—every government has subsidized the price of this mainstay of existence—but it cannot really promise, let alone bring about, a basic change for the peasants denied adequate land and inputs, the impoverished workers in the vast foreign and state-owned textile factories, the urban mass of people who have not really found a place in the city and its economy and the frustrated and furious youth, including the educated youth of all classes who cannot use their skills and talents for the betterment of the country, and often have to seek work abroad. Fulfilling lives are denied to almost everyone. And how could any Egyptian government of the classes dependent on imperialist capital and the international market stand up to the U.S. openly avowed "red line": that Egypt must not falter in helping to protect Israel from the Palestinians?

It would be tragic if those who want revolution in Egypt were to let themselves become pawns in the clash between imperialist-dependent Islamists who offer the false solace of religion, the hypocritical charity of the mosque and the suffocating solidarity of "the community of the faithful" that abolishes critical thinking, on the one hand, and on the other, rival political representatives of imperialist dependency who preach the false solace of "democratic" values that can't change the daily lives of the people or allow them to flourish as human beings.

The Islamists will have an advantage as long as they can portray the conflict as one between the vast masses of the downtrodden and privileged apologists for Western domination. The attempt to paint the secularists as a minority worried mainly about their endangered privileges is aided by the liberals who barely bother to address the basic needs of the lower classes.

The concept of the religious community has been used to hide the need for national liberation, and opponents of Islamic rule are labeled hirelings of unspecified "foreigners" (the Moslem Brotherhood would rather implicitly target "the Jews" and Israel, which bullies Egypt, rather than the U.S., whose political dictates are without appeal and are backed by economic domination). The country cannot win its liberation from imperialism through religion, but only by building a radically different economic, social and political system. It is way past time that the question of classes with antagonistic interests in relation to the country's future be rescued and applied. A big part of the problem is the lack of a real alternative to the frustration and pain of daily life and the religious outlook that expresses hopelessness and submission.

Many people who think they are clear about the reactionary nature of both the Brotherhood and the leadership of the National Salvation Front say that at least the anti-Morsi movement in the streets is out of anyone's control. To that, I would answer yes and no.

It's true that while the Islamists are confident that they can rely on some masses for their reactionary project, the liberals are afraid of upheaval. They did not want the youth and other people to confront the Islamists as determinedly as they did.

Many of those chanting "Morsi is Mubarak with a beard" and "Morsi leave" are out of control in the best sense, in that they are not willing to stop fighting for basic change in conditions they consider unacceptable. Their courage has brought about a situation in which the political awakening of the masses of people and the contention and disarray among the reactionaries could facilitate a real revolution whose goal is to free Egyptians and the world from all oppressive social relationships.

But in a more fundamental sense, that movement is not out of control because so few of its participants are able to see beyond the horizons of the two reactionary outlooks and political trends contending for power. Most importantly, they are not ideologically out of the control of the liberals because implicitly or explicitly they have not broken free of the dominant view that capitalism—with all the particular ways that it stunts the economy, society, lives and spirits in a dominated country like Egypt—is the only possible social system for the foreseeable future, and that socialist revolution as a step toward a communist world is impossible or even undesirable.

Many people think they see through the liberals, but right now they can't imagine any way out but the victory, to put it in a short-hand way, of Morsi or ElBaradei. Frankly, that limitation on the part of what have been the "Tahrir" forces is a big help for Morsi. Lenin wrote of the "strivings of the masses to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie" during periods of revolutionary upheaval in Russia; this applies in Egypt because so many people just don't see where else to turn.

In the last two years we have seen the best and the worst of different sections of "the people," depending on shifting combinations of circumstances. The ousting of Mubarak and much of the fearless political struggle since then has given a glimpse of what the people are capable of, especially when a more advanced section of the people are able to take the initiative.

The problem to be solved is how to access the revolutionary potential among the people. This requires developing an understanding of who are the friends and who are the enemies of the most fundamental interests of the masses of Egyptian people, what are the goals that need to be achieved in the service of those interests, and how to achieve them.

Amidst the thirst for change and the crisis of political legitimacy, the drawing of people into struggle on both sides could be turned into another advantage by a truly revolutionary force. But it also presents the great danger of a serious setback or even a reactionary resolution to this crisis, at least for the moment—and crucial moments like the past two years in Egypt don't come every day in history.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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