Whither Egypt?

President Mubarak’s non-resignation this evening expresses such a fundamental contempt for the Egyptian people that it is difficult to believe his regime will be able to exist one week hence. With the pompous and grandiloquent style of any puffed up petty tyrant, he waxed lyrical about practically every patriotic subject he could think of but offered absolutely nothing to the revolutionaries other than the mere possibility of formal Constitutional changes, which would change the procedure for his succession and which may or may not get rid of the emergency law which has held the country in his grip for decades. The shift of real power from Mubarak to Omar Suleiman is, if possible, even a retrograde step: Suleiman was head of the main intelligence agency (the Mukhabarat), and although the average Egyptian has had less to do with this than with the corrupt and brutal police force, it is still hardly a beloved state institution. Moreover, Suleiman in this role has been consistently the go-to man for the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies in their many manipulative attempts at controlling Egypt as the lever for the Middle East and Israel in particular. There is no reason to believe that Suleiman has any more interest in the progress of Egypt, even just towards a liberal democracy, than Mubarak did, and his appointment seems to have been mainly calculated to appease the military leadership, beneficiaries of American largesse. This move then is a cynical attempt at placating the West in their strategic interests and the army within Egypt, while leaving as little as possible transformed. The Egyptian people will not accept this.

In Egypt itself, it seems so far several contending powers and class forces are at work. In the first instance an important role has been played by the actual proletariat of the country, such as it is. While Egypt is by all means an agrarian state, urbanization has certainly progressed strongly as elsewhere in the Third World and it has a relatively substantial industrial base. Under Mubarak, Egypt has had a fairly liberal economic policy and there has been much foreign led industrialization, which has created a growing proletariat that is now increasingly organizing into unions and organizations to defend their interests. These groups have been at the forefront of the revolutionary movement against Mubarak c.s., and they can be expected to have the greatest potential for radical democratic reforms. It is important to note in this context that this development has by no means been limited to men, but in fact the Egyptian proletariat has expanded to a substantially female one as well, working as in many other ‘developing’ countries in textile and garment manufactures. A second group is the Muslim Brotherhood, which as an organization unites a diverse conglomerate of sub-classes and interests. On the one hand, there is a certain segment of rather strongly theocratic Islamists within the movement, but their influence in the current day can be easily overstated; the clericalism of the Brotherhood has been played up massively both by the Egyptian regime and by Western powers in order to demonize the opposition and to justify tyranny. The main powers in the Muslim Brotherhood are the professional sub-class of the bourgeoisie (lawyers, doctors, etc.) who are interested in reformism in the economic sphere and who decry the government’s incompetence and corruption, as well as some section of the bourgeoisie in the classic sense, which are mainly concerned with preserving the status quo in the social sphere while opposing the Westernizer policy that brings in hated foreign competition. Much the same goes for the petty bourgeoisie in Egypt, the many small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers and the like, who suffer daily from the depredations of the police forces and the competition from large foreign enterprises, and yet have an inclination to reactionary solutions as this class naturally does – this is the most natural base of support for the clericalist solution, as seen in Iran. Finally there is the army, which has a good reputation in Egypt (as in many Arab countries) since it is remote from the people’s daily oppression, but is recruited from it, in particular from the great rural mass of fellahin, which so far have remained passive as long as the army represents them. Their leadership’s interests are however, unlike in many other Arab countries, relatively aligned with those of the West, since the Egyptian generals are rewarded with bits and pieces of the American bribe fund and also with luxurious early retirement packages and state industry positions. While Mubarak’s pro-Israel policies are not popular with the country and not with the military either, as long as he manages to obtain the American sums in return and ensures order within Egypt as a matter of national pride, the officer class will not take the side of the revolutionaries.

The Brotherhood’s significance must not be overstated. While the reformist, professional section of the Brotherhood has a certain popularity because of their provision of social services and their relative lack of corruption, the clericals are as a whole by no means an independent, popular force against the regime. On the contrary, Mubarak has taken pains to emphasize the danger of islamist takeover while at the same time co-opting the fine followers of the prophet by offering them places in the sham parliament, giving them directorships at state industry, and so forth. Moreover, the islamisant style of the Brotherhood is easily imitated, with Mubarak’s government making occasional shows of its moralistic hypocrisy by persecuting homosexuals, cracking down on gambling dens or rhetoricizing against the licentiousness of modern life. He cannot go too far in this however, as attacking the substantial Christian minority would not go over well with the Americans whose vassal he is, nor with the secular middle class or the army. The religiosity of the Egyptian population remains very high, even by the standards of the Middle East and North Africa, and therefore it is not to be expected that much progress will be made on the anticlerical front even without Mubarak. But because of the split nature of the Brotherhood itself, it is by no means a given that they will be able to profit from the occasion of the rebellion to seize power, or even to gain in influence. This is all the more true since they have shown themselves to be remarkably inept at political tactics in recent years, and their popularity, by anecdotal accounts, appears to have waned somewhat.

This suggests then an interesting balance of class forces. The results of this may well turn out significantly more progressive and interesting than many might have expected, if the revolution succeeds (as still seems likely). In Iran recently, the choice was between two evils, between an arch-reactionary clerical regime that operates on the basis of ‘divide and rule’ and a clique of opportunistic liberals mainly interested in diverting the public anger towards increasing their competitive position as members of the bourgeoisie internationally. Here in Egypt, however, there is a true open question as to what the consequences would be if the revolution is carried through, and it is this that gives the greatest hope. The more political room for breathing there is, the greater room for action also, as freedom is the oxygen of revolution. It is precisely in these open spaces, these interstices of history that the greatest advances are made – even if they are short-lived, such as the Paris Commune in 1871, or even Bela Kún’s dictatorship of the proletariat in Hungary. Such an outcome is not immediately to be expected in Egypt, but for socialists, these are interesting times indeed.

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