In Egypt, the population has once again risen against the dictatorship – this time that of the military regime which has stepped into the vacuum of power after the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has responded to mass protests in Tahrir square with violent repression, killing many. At the same time, it attempts to deny the intention to repress demonstrations, and pushes onwards with the scheduled elections. The SCAF is playing a dangerous double game here, but so are the demonstrators in Tahrir. Field Marshal Tantawi’s speech after the first recent uprising hit some strong notes. On the one hand, it sacrificed the unpopular and powerless interim cabinet, on the other hand it guaranteed an end to military rule by the next summer. Moreover, the Army in Egypt, unlike the police, is relatively popular. It is seen as the guarantor of the nation’s unity and is filled with conscripts from the fellahin class, the still very large small peasant population in Egypt which ekes out a marginal living in rural areas and is largely illiterate, conservative, and uninterested in the issues of the urban reform movements.
The Tahrir protesters will certainly have the support of the liberal middle class, which seeks a ‘normal’ liberal-democratic order. It may also achieve the support of much of the urban working class, which knows the support of the army for the exploiting classes and their mutual back-scratching. But against this are arrayed the powerful forces of not just the army as symbol of the nation, but also the Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood. This group still has strong appeal among the conservative religious elements of the nation, yet its leadership has allowed itself to be bought almost entirely into the military-bourgeois establishment. Because of the sheer numbers of the fellahin and the backwards elements of the poor population, the Ikhwan are almost certain to do very well in the elections, even more so if the ban on the former Mubarak party holds. For this reason, they have a strong incentive to make a deal with the SCAF and stab any attempt at a direct revolution against military rule in the back; the first signs of this have already been seen. But in a confrontation between army and Brotherhood on the one hand and the Tahrir protestors on the other hand, the great mass of the population will be deeply divided, allowing the stronger force to win. Finally, one must not forget the influence of the Western powers, who would much rather have the ‘stability’ of the military rule and corrupt clerics than the uncertainty of popular sovereignty. This is the challenge the Tahrir movement now has to face, socialist or liberal.
When it comes to the so-called threat of Islamic forces in the Middle East, nothing can be more heartening than the development Turkey has undergone with the continued rule of the AK Party. Normally the sympathies of skeptical leftists would be on the side of a secular nationalist force over that of a conservative religious one. But in Turkey, the opposite should be the case in this confrontation. Obviously neither the nationalist CHP nor the conservative AKP represent in the long term the interests of the majority of the Turkish people. Nor will the European Union solve all its problems, as the current crisis has made all too clear. But the AKP’s third victory in a row has shown the widespread popular dissatisfaction with the conspiratorial, corrupt, fascistoid militarism presented by the CHP under the guise of Kemalism. While the war with the Kurdish separatists continues unabated, the very relationship of the Turkish people to their nation is being slowly transformed under the leadership of Erdogan and Gül. With the arrest of a large number of figures from the military and bureaucratic elite, the Erdogan government has made clear that the persistent attempts of the military-bureaucratic establishment and its supporters in the CHP to rule against popular will by Bonapartist coup de main will no longer be accepted as common practice. Erdogan has effectively declared war on the ‘deep state’ in Turkey, the establishment’s secretive extralegal networks for maintaining power. No longer will the will of the Turkish people be subverted by drug runners, arms dealers, ambitious generals, and revanchist lawyers conniving to establish a militarist, war-mongering, perfidious regime that appeals to the lowest instincts.
What’s more, the AKP’s religious background plays actually a positive role in Turkey. Its willingness to end the immediate struggle against the mere outward symbols of religion, such as the veil, shows in an ironic sense a greater appreciation of the nature of religious sentiment than the CHP’s laïcité does. As Marx so amply explained in his early works, one combats religion by combating the causes of religion, not by attacking its outward symbolism. It is the core, its expression as hope in a hopeless world, the sigh of the oppressed creature, and so forth, that must be addressed, not the mystical shell. The religious nature of the AK Party also plays a positive role in Turkey’s long-standing battle with its own history. While Atatürk had no problems whatever in admitting to the monarchist-military government’s responsibility in the genocide of the Armenians, the nationalist and revanchist cliques in Turkey have long made it impossible to discuss these matters in a scientifically and politically meaningful way by means of a campaign of terror and intimidation. Similar patterns apply to other historical difficulties for the nationalists.
The AK Party however does not feel itself bound to defend the dubious honor of making Turkey the most self-deluded country in the world, and its example here has now actually inspired even a CHP member of parliament to do the same. Huseyin Aygün mentioned the massacre of a large number of Alevi Kurds in the then-province of Dersim – an act of courage which promtly deeply split the CHP, with twelve CHP MPs gathering on their own initiative to denounce him. Erdogan promptly drove the point home by pointing out the CHP involvement in the murders, as the dictatorships of Atatürk and Inönü are their ideological ancestors. The CHP only deviated once from its stance representing the national interest as that of the military and the bureaucracy, and this was under Bülent Ecevit, when the military promptly stepped in to ‘correct’ it. At the same time, the popular pressure through the AKP as well as the increasing development of Turkey has caused the current CHP leader Kilicdaroglu to moderate his language with respect to the Kurds, making a new enemy out of the ‘Islamism’ of the AKP. In a time of widespread fear of Islamic terrorism, this is a card easy to play. It is disappointing therefore that so many in the West are falling for it, not realizing the AK Party’s domestic and foreign policies – Erdogan has recently taken a harsh stance against the former ally Assad, without supporting foreign interventions – are a great step forward from the CHP’s former rule.
I’m not sure I agree with the assessment that the liberals will support the Tahrir protesters. There are certain highly visible liberal commentators who will – Alaa’ al Aswany comes to mind – but there are a great many others – Amr Hamzawy would be one – who are very vocal about their disapproval of the continued use of popular protest. The general sentiment I seem to be hearing from many middle class liberals here is that they feel the clashes were provoked by thugs in the pay of the former regime masquerading as protesters, and they would like to see elections go forward and not be hindered by these protests.
Certainly the liberals have abiding concerns about the power of the MB. But since the MB has diverged significantly from the Salafist elements in favor of a more neoliberal slant, they have fractured their electoral base. In my opinion, although the MB will claim a significant share of parliamentary elections, they will still need to enter into coalition to accomplish anything, thereby diluting any Islamist influence they might have on the government overall.
Well, okay. Maybe I was a bit overoptimistic.