It is always difficult for socialists in one part of the world to pronounce on events thousands of miles away – at least without a certain degree of hubris and a certain risk of making oneself ridiculous. This applies perhaps in particular for those countries where the political forms and institutions, immediately apparent to outsiders, do not actually reveal much about the internal political and economic stucture: one can think here of Turkey, Pakistan, and the like. In a sense, it can perhaps be said that generally poor countries are effectively more divided than rich ones. This should come as no surprise given the desperation of poverty, the strength of religious divisions in such places, and the nature of class conflict. Sometimes these divisions are relatively clear and transparent to the outside, but often they are not, and even when properly understood reveal nothing much more than the many contradictions that keep such countries in a social and economic trap of poverty and violence. Egypt seems to fit the latter mold.
Nonetheless, I think it can be useful and justified for Western commentators to speak about events there, even if they know neither the country nor the language very well. There are several reasons for this. The first is owing to the political conclusions drawn by the various progressive forces in the West from events abroad, which makes the struggle over how to interpret these events also a struggle over the political outlook locally. Such arguments by proxy are, as I have argued before, often inherently questionable and misleading, but they are frequent. Secondly, the internationalist and cosmopolitan viewpoint that the current age demands and solidarity with people abroad requires a lively interest in their affairs, including in assessing the successes and mistakes of the progressive movements and parties of the places in question – but without thereby implying that some recipe for success exists in this or that office in London or Chicago. Such certainties are exactly the domain of the world improving free traders in the international economic organizations, and their all-knowing charity has done immeasurable harm. Rather, our perspective should be to see what the events and politics abroad look like to us, and what we can learn from them rather than to telling people far away what to do. But of course any intellectual independence also requires the courage to identify and comment on a mistake when one sees one, even if it is just to unleash a discussion on strategy. Due to its relation to ongoing events, such a strategic discussion can be infinitely more fruitful than overly abstract and general chatter about ‘workers’ parties’, ‘united fronts’ and so forth. But this, too, requires to obtain as much knowledge as possible for an outsider about the place in question, and a critical sifting of the writings and actions of the people on the ground.
All this being said, it is clear that the biggest current topic of this kind is the military coup in Egypt, which has supplanted the ongoing demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil and the slow collapse of Greece in the attention of the Western left. The deposing by military coup of President Morsi, who had not been in power for more than a year, following what may well be the largest political demonstrations in world history against the same President (its turnout counted in the tens of millions) – this is a series of events of global significance, everyone agrees. However, it has promptly split much of the opinion of the left abroad, as it has done for the left locally. Some have argued that the military interposing itself is not really a coup, but simply the consequence of the mass demonstrations against Morsi, which we ought to endorse as the next stage in the Egyptian revolution. Others have defended Morsi as being democratically elected and feel he should have had the opportunity to serve out his term. Against such divisions, and with no particular knowledge of the future or of Egypt, I can only offer what seems to me a useful narrative to understand these events.
As I have written earlier, Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak seems in an unusual fashion to resemble the 19th century development of what Marx called ‘Bonapartism’, referring to the election and eventual coup of Napoleon III in France following the failed revolutions of 1848. The core properties these cases seem to have in common is that both countries have an increasingly urban and industrial character, but its urban working class population is still at a low level of coherence and organization; that both have a large and undifferentiated, fairly traditional peasantry, constituting a vast passive section of the population; that the political strife between organized parties is a strife within the urban belt, which due to its opposition with the countryside can never fully achieve any legitimacy; that the basis of the nation as a unity is its embodiment in the army, as the one body both town and country are represented in and through which the nation presents itself outward (in Egypt’s case, especially to Israel and the US); that therefore any urban based uprisings or rebellions tend to resolve themselves in a succession of highly unstable provisional governments, ultimately tending to the intervention of a military dictatorship, on a kind of plebiscite basis, by the army representing the ‘national interest’. This is how the sequence of events between 1848 and 1851 was described by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire, and this is how it seems to have evolved in Egypt as well.
That’s of course in a sense just a historical narrative. But it shows that it would be quite wrong to say that this military coup is just a passing phenomenon, and of no significance to the progress of the Egyptian revolution (if we adopt that term) itself. On the contrary, I would argue. It is telling if tens of millions of people can gather to overthrow a hated government: this shows an unprecedented mobilization of people in their longer term interests, a victory of popular will (33 million is as clear as that will ever be) in the general against the ward boss politics of local mobilization and general demobilization that characterizes the Muslim Brotherhood. It is precisely the Ikhwan’s ability to mobilize in this push-button fashion, its American style politics of maximizing the friendly turnout and minimizing the enemy turnout, that won it its election (by a hair) a year ago. While the election was as fair as one could reasonably demand, this should not be mistaken for democracy in any substantive sense. Rather the contrary: the exclusion from the economic and political-bureaucratic commanding heights of the vast majority of people and their lack of democratic control over them has, if anything, only increased under Morsi. This was the cause that gathered the millions.
But the military response, to intervene in the heated atmosphere to safeguard Egypt as a whole and to depose Morsi in the name of this people, should be properly seen as a blow not against democracy, but against popular mobilization. It strikes against democracy in the formal sense of the legitimacy of elections and procedure, this is true. But much more importantly, far from completing this stage of the Egyptian revolt, the intervention of the military can only have the purpose of pre-empting its conclusion. The hatred of the demonstrators was against the Muslim Brotherhood, while with most of Egypt (including most Ikhwan supporters) the army had their support as this guarantor of the country. The army and the Brotherhood never got on very well, partially because of the sectarian policies of the MB, but also because of the army’s own vested interest – its control over much of the productive forces of the country, its dependence on American funding and its functioning as a vehicle for American interests, and its associated policy of an uncritical peace with the settler state of Israel.
Insofar, therefore, as the popular mobilization could only be fulfilled by overthrowing the Brotherhood’s rule, this achievement is rendered meaningless if it is done by the army on behalf of the army, rather than by the popular movement on its own behalf. This movement is itself a somewhat ad hoc anti-Morsi coalition, but it is precisely the process of its working out of its own political conflicts that could make it clear and transparent where the real oppositions of interests are. The army intervention, by robbing it of this opportunity, clarified the army’s role for the Brotherhood and its supporters, but not for anyone else, nor does it permit the continuation of the popular mobilization that allowed it to act in the first place. The result is therefore no different than if Ahmed Shafiq had defeated Morsi in the first elections, and the policy of ‘a pox on both your houses’ remains just as valid.
In a certain sense, this outcome is perhaps even the worst of the options. So many polities in the MENA region have been under various kinds of tyrannical rule for so long, and their peoples the subject of manipulation, intimidation, and mobilization on sectarian grounds so systematically, that nothing would be healthier for it than an opportunity to truly work out its politics in practice. The endless military coups and monarchical restorations prevent any kind of transparency to appear about who the classes of the society are, what the real opposition of interests is, and what political meaning each of the various parties and groups has in practice. These, however, are just precisely the only merits of liberal democracy in its purely formal sense: that it allows these to be shown ad oculos. It is no wonder then that the political consciousness of this region since colonial rule has so often been in the form of conspiracy theory and forms of small group terrorism. (In fact, the Brotherhood’s depiction of the coup in Egypt as the work of shadowy Christian conspiracies only shows this once more.)
From this vantage point, the elections in Egypt were a very meaningful step forward, as it allowed not just the first real vote in the country, but also in so doing clarified the strength of the various groups and their oppositions. As it turned out, Egypt is split more or less evenly between the left, the Brotherhood, the Islamists, and the liberal-army-nationalist faction. Given the opportunity, the mobilizations and conflicts of each of these groups will no doubt develop further; one could imagine a split in the Army-liberal coalition, currently represented by Mohammed El-Baradei. The purpose of these elections from our viewpoint is not to give unlimited respect and legitimacy to the ward bosses of the Ikhwan, but to respect their unintended effect, namely to strengthen the process of popular political mobilization. In the longer run, such a process is the only possible way for the left to win, anywhere. That the various factions were able to unite and gather tens of millions against the Brotherhood is a great next step in this development. But a military coup is the simple assumption of power over and against this popular movement, to ensure the continuity of large sections of Egypt’s traditional political economy and foreign policy, heading off the more throughgoing challenge the opposition movement would have implied – whatever the positions of the faction leaders. It is therefore totally reactionary.
In fact, because of its clarifying effect, it would be better for Morsi to have sat out his entire term and suffer the wrath of the ballot box over a period of four years than for the Brotherhood to be quelled by soldiers after just one. If the popular movement and its well-wishers want the Egyptian revolution to succeed, they must demand and hope that the opposition movement will now in turn clarify its position against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and overthrow them in turn. Then the Brotherhood period can be legitimately considered drawn to a close. As it stands, Egypt has the worst of both worlds – it has neither the political process of liberal democracy, nor the victory of popular mobilization that would give it a more substantive form. All it has is generals in the pay of the United States, playing each faction against the other while hiding that it is itself a faction, the expression of Egypt’s incomplete revolution – just like Napoleon III. In that case, it took 19 years and a crushing defeat in war for Bonapartism to go. Let’s hope Egypt can do this faster.