The Egyptian Parliament has just convened, recently elected by a partly proportional and partly district-based system in the first more or less meaningful elections in recent Egyptian history. Confirming the worries I laid out in earlier articles on developments in Egypt, the socialist and liberal parties performed according to their narrow, largely urban working and middle class bases (respectively); the great victory went to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Al-Nour, the more explicitly religious reactionary party. Now the first thing is to dismiss any attempts by Western commentators to condescend toward the Egyptians, to state the results as evidence that Arabs don’t know what is good for them, that pro-Western dictators are better than votes, and so forth. This kind of chauvinistic laziness only serves the interests of the thieving and warmongering cliques around the so-called ‘secular dictators’ in the Arab world, and the interests of the Western governments who supply them with money and arms.
For the future of the MENA region, the most important thing is the full development of its politics. Under the rule of the strongmen, all developments one would normally expect in their politics are frozen in place, held in stasis by the repression and the personal politics of the Assads, Mubaraks, and Saddam Husseins. The endless playing out of one religious or ethnic group against another strengthens sectarian identifications while preventing them from leading to any kind of result; at the same time, the other political options are never given a chance to play out, so that they always function as the imagined alternative. The various forms of clerical and religious politics, for example, only seem appealing because they are clear alternatives to the corrupt rule of the strongmen families and the military leaders. Because they are never given a chance to work out in practice, the people can’t find out what they do and don’t like about them, and they do not get to discover that when it comes to making public policy or combating unemployment, the ‘Islamists’ have no more knowledge of how to proceed than the military cliques do. For Egypt, therefore, the experience of the rule by the Ikhwan will be a valuable lesson, one that should be allowed to take its time and work itself out.
Soon enough the Egyptians will find out that the Ikhwan’s support base is the many poor in the countryside and the slums, but the leadership of their movement are bourgeois professionals who already have a considerable stake in the various quasi-monopolistic companies of the country and who are always ready to be bribed by either the military cliques or the Western governments who support them. As long as the political institutions remain open enough to allow room for political struggle, this will give an opportunity to the left for cricitizing their inevitable failure to actually economically satisfy the fellahin and the urban poor. Of course, the reactionaries will also attempt to benefit from this; it is of the utmost strategic importance for the left that it not accomodate their maneouvres to enlist the poor in favor of their ‘Islamic’ programme, and instead to attack them on the economic question, where they are weak. The working class in Egypt is however not large and not well-organized enough to stand on its own strength, so it is inevitable that on such economic questions alliances must be made; while at the same time the liberal currents in the very weak independent middle class of Egypt must be enlisted against the various schemes of religious repression that will no doubt be put forward.
The Egyptian situation has some interesting historical parallels, which to some extent also apply to other countries which are finding themselves in the position of having opened up their political sphere, only to find military strongmen and ‘responsible’ bourgeois ready to close it off again. Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the situation in Prussia after the part-success and part-failure of the 1848 revolution is surprisingly apt here. In Prussia a constitutional monarchy prevailed, but in fact this monarchy was largely military in orientation, and the ‘constitutional’ aspect severely curtailed by the weakness of the middle class and its fear of the great peasant and worker mass, which drove it to accomodation with repression. The result was a quasi-Bonapartist situation, just as prevailed in France after the failure of their revolution to make a full breakthrough. In his pamphlet “The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party”, Engels described this as follows:
But there is another form of reaction which has enjoyed much success in recent times and is becoming highly fashionable in certain circles; ‘this is the form nowadays called Bonapartism. Bonapartism is the necessary form of state in a country where the working class, at a high level of its development in the towns but numerically inferior to the small peasants in rural areas, has been defeated in a great revolutionary struggle by the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie and the army. When the Parisian workers were defeated in the titanic struggle of June 1848 in France, the bourgeoisie had at the same time totally exhausted itself in this victory. It was aware it could not afford a second such victory. It continued to rule in name, but it was too weak to govern. Control was assumed by the army, the real victor, basing itself on the class from which it preferred to draw its recruits, the small peasants, who wanted peace from the rioters in the towns. The form this rule took was of course military despotism, its natural leader the hereditary heir to the latter, Louis Bonaparte.
As far as both workers and capitalists are concerned, Bonapartism is characterised by the fact that it prevents them coming to blows with each other. In other words, it protects the bourgeoisie from any violent attacks by the workers, encourages a little gentle skirmishing between the two classes and furthermore deprives both alike of the faintest trace of political power. No freedom of association, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of the press; universal suffrage under such bureaucratic pressure that election of the opposition is almost impossible; police-control of a kind that had previously been unknown even in police-ridden France. Besides which, sections of the bourgeoisie and of the workers are simply bought; the former by colossal credit-swindles, by which the money of the small capitalists is attracted into the pockets of the big ones; the latter by colossal state construction-schemes which concentrate an artificial, imperial proletariat dependent on the government in the big towns alongside the natural, independent proletariat. Finally, national pride is flattered by apparently heroic wars, which are however always conducted with the approval of the high authorities of Europe against the general scapegoat of the day and only on such conditions as ensure victory from the outset.
The most that such a government can do either for the workers or for the bourgeoisie is to allow them to recuperate from the struggle, to allow industry to develop strongly — other circumstances being favourable — to allow the elements of a new and more violent struggle to evolve therefore, and to allow this struggle to erupt as soon as the need for such recuperation has passed. It would be the absolute height of folly to expect any more for the workers from a government which exists simply and solely for the purpose of holding the workers in check as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned.
This is surprisingly close to the situation we should expect in Egypt today, following the street riots against the Mubarak government and afterwards the SCAF itself, and the electoral result in favor of the fellahin-supported parties of order. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is most loath to let go of its position as ‘mediator’ between the forces, representing the national interest and the future of Egypt, etc. etc., and more such rubbish which is intended to use the relative prestige of the army to hide their strongman position over and above the will of Egypt’s parliament. In this, they play the Bonapartist, monarchical role. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership and the liberals are two wings of the middle class, the former representing the accomodating wing, the latter the challenging wing; they and the left, including the trade unions in Egypt insofar as sufficiently organized, can easily be played out against each other. The same goes for the reactionaries, who together with the Ikhwan can easily be enlisted to support any convenient repression of political or social freedoms, or the rights of the Coptic minority, in the ‘national interest’. Over time, such repressions will inevitably also redound upon the organized workers’ movements in Egypt. In exchange, the Brotherhood and the army clique can be counted upon to support various ‘national’ building schemes and quasi-welfare programmes with which to buy off the natural resentment these repressions will cause. The progressive forces in Egypt must be aware of this, and not let up their struggle against this Bonapartist position the SCAF is preserving for itself, and fighting to let the actual politics play out in Parliament and in free political exchange. There over time the Brotherhood will reveal its hypocrisy and the reactionaries will discredit themselves, and then Egypt can move forward.