Egypt’s revolution: between the streets and the army

by Jerome Roos on July 2, 2013

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Egypt’s revolution will never be complete until the authoritarian neoliberal state is finally dismantled. Only the power of the streets can do this.

Morsi is trembling. Two days after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to once again demand the downfall of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood looks weaker and more isolated than ever. On Monday, the grassroots Tamarod campaign that kicked off the mass protests gave Morsi 24 hours to step down and threatened an indefinite wave of civil disobedience if he failed to comply. The army quickly joined in, giving the government a thinly-veiled 48-hour ultimatum to “meet the people’s demands”.

Since then, at least six government ministers have jumped ship, with rumors doing the rounds earlier on Tuesday that the entire cabinet had resigned. To further compound the pressure on Morsi, the army command released spectacular footage showing Sunday’s mass mobilizations from the bird’s eye view of the military helicopters that circled over Cairo carrying Egyptian and army flags — set to bombastic music, patriotic slogans and incessant chants of “Out! Out! Out!” directed at the President and Muslim Brotherhood.

On Tuesday morning, government officials, opposition leaders and the military command were all quick to deny that the army’s statements and actions were indications of an impending military coup — even though one of Morsi’s advisors had earlier gone off script and argued that the office of the Presidency did regard the army’s ultimatum as such. Still, Tamarod organizers and opposition leaders have unambiguously welcomed the army’s stance in the hope that its secular command will take their side and “gently” nudge the Islamists from power.

Many of those in the streets also seem to be broadly supportive of an army intervention. Every time one of the military helicopters flew over Tahrir, the people would greet it with loud cheers, chanting that “the people and the military are one hand”. Still, the hardcore activists who have struggled ceaselessly to defend their revolution over the past two-and-a-half years remember the lies and brutalities of the military junta that they themselves helped to push from power, and continue to call for total liberation: “No Mubarak, No Military, No Morsi!”

Meanwhile, reactionary elements from the Mubarak regime are staging a come-back. First of all, despite Morsi’s appointment of Al-Sisi as commander-in-chief, the army’s top-brass is still full of Mubarak-era appointments that continue to wield enormous power behind the scenes, not least through their vast economic empire. Apart from this, there is still Mubarak’s unreformed security apparatus — including the police — who despise the Islamists and have refused to protect their premises and headquarters from being ransacked by the protesters. Yet these are the same policemen who killed, tortured and maimed even peaceful protesters during the first uprising of 2011.

This cacophony is further complicated by the two main sources of support that Morsi can still count on: first the popular support base of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which continues to mobilize in defense of their President and which will refuse to let him be pushed out without putting up a fight; and second the Obama administration, which has just pledged its support for the “democratic” process, undoubtedly to preserve its overarching goal of maintaining regional stability and defending Israeli interests. Morsi hopes that the army won’t take action without the express approval of the US, on whose support he can still count. The question is: for how much longer?

The Clash of Coalitions

The main lesson we can draw from this historic episode is that revolutions are never clean-cut events undertaken by an easily-identifiable revolutionary subject, but always complex processes of inherently chaotic social struggle in which different elite factions vie for power and legitimacy, with the revolutionary multitude itself often caught in between them, at times allying itself with one side or another. Revolutions are almost always made by complex coalitions, and such coalitions may shift dramatically over time, partly out of ideological differences but mostly as a result of diverging economic interests. The Egyptian Revolution is no different in this respect.

For some, this inherently chaotic situation is a reason to urge restraint. The latest editorial pieces by The Guardian are particularly reactionary in this regard. First, the paper argued that the revolution is “on the brink of self-destruction” as a result of internecine struggles; then it urged protesters to exercise the “wisdom of the street” and demobilize in order to focus on meaningful economic reform first and the revolution’s promises of social justice and real democracy later; now its Middle East editor Ian Black writes that, “for all the drama, sacrifices and high-flown aspirations of the Egyptian revolution, the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power.”

Such media commentaries are not only riven with reformist fear but also hopelessly simplistic in their analysis of the extant social forces and the complex power struggles going on between them. While there is clearly a moment of truth in the statement that the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt, it also needs to be observed that the army is far from omnipotent. It knows it cannot rule by itself and is therefore bound to join one coalition or another. In the end, the army remains utterly dependent on three critical power resources:

  1. The $1.3 billion in military aid it receives from the US every year (and therefore continued US approval of its actions, which in turn hinges crucially upon the army’s commitment to the Camp David Peace Accords);
  2. The “privileged position” it derives from the economic empire it has built up over the decades, which is deeply integrated into the US military-industrial complex and which is being harmed significantly by investor fears over continued social unrest);
  3. The popular legitimacy that can only be provided by a sense of calm in the streets.

Clearly, these critical power resources of the Egyptian military stand in constant conflict with one another. The army’s need for popular legitimacy constantly runs up against the elite’s continued pandering to US and Israeli interests, as well as the enormous wealth its leadership has acquired over the decades. This is why the army constantly needs to radiate an aura of patriotism that claims to align the military command with the wishes of the people and the goals of the revolution; even if these wishes and goals are in many way in direct opposition to the army’s social dominance and its unaccountable “autonomous” role within the state apparatus.

The Power of the Streets

It is one thing to claim that the army is the ultimate arbiter of power; it is quite another to recognize that the streets have become a power-unto-itself in the contemporary political constellation in Egypt. It is easy (and convenient) to forget that the 1,5-year rule of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) following Mubarak’s ouster was itself driven out by social rebellion over the army’s brutal practices of torture and repression, its illegitimate influence over state institutions, and its enormous privileges in terms of economic wealth and power. The SCAF realized that its rule was eroding its base of popular legitimacy, which in turn threatened its economic interests. In order to preserve its position of social dominance, therefore, it called elections knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood would win, and that the military command would have to enter into an uneasy coalition combining the secular army’s privileged political and economic position with the cultural hegemony of Islamism.

But the deepening economic crisis meant that even a heavy dose of Islamist rhetoric could not maintain a stable hegemony. The state’s fiscal and monetary position rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the 2011 uprising, with the Central Bank’s reserves depleting, interest rates on sovereign debt spiking up, and foreign exchange shortages feeding into currency depreciation and rising prices of crucial imports like food and fuel. Recent months have witnessed vast fuel shortages, which clearly hit the poorest hardest. This has caused even religious Egyptians who initially supported the Muslim Brotherhood to turn their backs on Morsi and join the Rebellion campaign that kick-started the ongoing second uprising. The army now once again finds itself in a situation where the legitimacy upon which its privileged position depends is being eroded by the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood. It simply had to shift sides.

What we are witnessing, therefore, is not so much a military coup as an internal rearrangement between different elite factions. While the Brotherhood was hoping to create a Muslim-led ruling class in the vein of Erdogan’s Islamic neoliberalism in Turkey, the leadership of the army still hopes to preserve the privileges it obtained under three successive military dictatorships from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. In this game of clashing and constantly shifting coalitions, a military-dominated government is unlikely. The military knows that neither the streets nor the US will let it rule alone. To preserve its privileged position, it will probably try to enter into a coalition with its logical ideological ally: the secular opposition, likely to be led by Mohamed El-Baradei. The opposition itself, however, remains poorly organized and thoroughly divided. It is therefore unlikely that a new round of elections or even a technocratic transition government will do much to stabilize the crisis-ridden Egyptian state.

Ultimately, this crisis cannot be successfully resolved until the authoritarian neoliberal state that was built up by Mubarak in collaboration with global capital, the IMF and successive US governments, is fully dismantled. However complex and fraught with obstacles this process may be, the engine behind the revolution is now unmistakable: without the power of the streets, Egypt would continue to be ruled by authoritarian madmen, whether their names are Mubarak, Morsi or the Military. If the state and the elites who control it are forced to move, they do so not out of voluntary will but because yet another grassroots rebellion forces them to. As Comrades from Cairo just wrote in an open letter published by ROAR, what Egypt now needs is not the fall of another president or regime — but the fall of the system as such. Only the fearless and continued struggle of the streets can bring this revolution to a successful conclusion.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan van der Putten July 3, 2013 at 10:50

Fine analysis, Jerome. But how to explain the surprising lack of memory of so many people on the street as far as the recent military brutalities are concerned?

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jkelvynrichards July 3, 2013 at 12:25

Jerome, your more detailed analysis shows that Egypt is subject to the interactions of a complex set of elites, both national and international. I wonder at what point will Israel move against Egypt? and ignite another Middle East conflict?
Egypt has the largest armed forces in Africa. At what point will their leaders decide that they cannot stand by any longer doing nothing? jeopardising their military power.
Egypt is a highly militarised country with conscription for all 18 year olds.
Egypt has received up to $4.billion in military aid from the USA each year over the last decade. At what point will the USA decide that they will have to move to reconcile their interests in Israel, Egypt,Palestine, Jordan, Syria?
The peoples of Egypt have decided that they can no longer accept the situation at home.
At what point will they have to act against the military, the USA, Israel as well as the Muslim Brotherhood ?
A country that has willingly accepted trillions of dollars from the USA over the years will have to take the consequences! and realise that their protests have international as well as national significance. Their situation will be watched by the leaders of Russia, China, the EU, the UK, and USA, Israel, the Emirates.

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jkelvynrichards July 3, 2013 at 16:14

The wonders of modern media…………it reveals the unwinding of the demands of the different groups……………we see the protesters in the streets and squares of Cairo shouting ‘Go! Go!’………..we see Morsi declaring ‘No! No!’…..
the military leaders issue an ultimatum demanding Morsi to Go!……….Morsi says No!………….the Muslim Brotherhood declare Morsi the elected president……and demand the protesters wait for the next election………..other protesters call for military rule………..they want peace and quiet………the military leaders declare that they will not organise a military coup……….who is to be trusted ? ………..what is the role of the USA?………the CIA? .. the NSA?

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John Spritzler July 6, 2013 at 15:36

As much as I would love to say that events in Egypt recently (the military “ousting” President Morsi, to the cheers of huge numbers of Egyptians demonstrating and calling for his ouster) are an example of the democratic revolution I advocate (in Thinking about Revolution on my website), by the means I envision (soldiers going over to the side of the people’s revolutionary movement), I cannot say it; it’s just not true.

The power in Egypt remains in the hands of those who want society to be unequal and based on capitalism. The rank and file soldiers, to my knowledge, have not refused orders from the top military generals, but have in fact obeyed those orders. The top military generals are not only the commanders of the military but, somewhat unique to Egypt, are also among the nation’s top capitalists, owning key industries not related to military matters, and exploiting the labor of rank and file soldiers among others.

The capitalist class has ruled over the masses in various ways in the past, and has been forced to use some “trial and error” since 2011 to remain in control. A ruling class needs a modicum of legitimacy among a critical mass of the population in order for them–the wealthy few–to control the many–the masses of have-nots.

There are different ways of achieving legitimacy for the few to rule the many. One way is to use politicians who win an election. Another way is to use theocratic (will of God) means to legitimize rule by religious leaders. Another way is to use the “We are the only ones who can establish law and order and safety,” which is what some military dictatorships rely upon.

The ruling class in Egypt is trying to find a method that works and is sustainable, and it is having some trouble, because lots of Egyptians are willing and able to express their discontent when they are discontented, and create instability that prevents the status quo from being sustainable.

But however the chips may land, it ain’t a democratic revolution unless the people who are opposed to class inequality and opposed to capitalism and opposed to the hierarchical principle (the principle that one must obey the central government) are on top, and are shaping society by the values of equality and mutual aid. I don’t see that happening in Egypt, unfortunately.

Being against the Muslim Brotherhood is not the same as being for democratic revolution. Egypt’s military leaders are very consciously taking advantage of this fact to leverage popular discontent at the Muslim Brotherhood to support for the military generals and their rule–to enforce inequality and capitalism! At the same time, being against a military dictatorship is not the same thing as being for democratic revolution either: The Muslim Brotherhood is against a military dictatorship but they are equally for inequality and capitalism and obedience to the central government.

There are some people (probably a small number) who are explicitly advocating essentially democratic revolution, and whose writings we have seen recently. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Egyptians are IMPLICITLY for democratic revolution, in the sense that their values as expressed by their personal actions in everyday life are those of democratic revolution.

The implicit support for democratic revolution needs to be made explicit. It is a task that will take time, here and around the world. To make progress in this task, to do things that advance it, requires knowing the difference between this task and what people with very different goals are doing. There are people in Egypt, some with large followings, who have very different goals from democratic revolution: the generals and capitalists and Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but also popular leaders who frame the goal in ways that do not challenge class inequality or capitalism or obedience to a central government. The latter use nationalism and talk about how the central government should represent “all Egyptians,” as if a government can represent both the exploiters and the exploited, the ones who want inequality and the ones who don’t. They use the language of nationalism and liberal “democracy” and “rule of law” to divert people’s attention from the goals of equality and mutual aid and to make people feel they must obey a central government that is pro-capitalist and enforces inequality.

Perhaps a movement that is explicitly for democratic revolution–egalitarianism–will emerge from the events in Egypt. Perhaps it is there already and just not visible to me. I hope so. If and when it is visible to us, we should support it as best we can. But let’s not celebrate movements with very different goals, just because a lot of people are involved. The masses in Tahir Square are apparently cheering the generals whom they cursed in 2011. This shows there is a great deal of confusion among the masses, which is being taken advantage of by the elites. We should try to avoid being confused, ourselves, and do what we can to help others not be confused. The key is to keep in mind what our goals are, and to judge others by whether their goals are ours or not.

The most important way for us to support Egyptians who want a democratic revolution is to work for that goal–explicitly–in our own countries.

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dave fryett July 7, 2013 at 01:02

What can I say, Jerome, another brilliant, perspicacious essay. you and ROAR have been the best thing to happen to revolutionology in a long time.

I’m beginning to become optimistic again…

I wonder: Is there such a thing as a “cold” revolution? That is most revolutions occur when people are pissed off enough that they don’t care about the consequences of taking on the state and its goons anymore. Most people have to be driven near mad before they will rebel. Is it possible that an entire class can coolly come to the conclusion that the existing order must be eliminated? Can revolution come as a result of a discussion broad enough to influence the critical mass of the masses?

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