Thoughts on Egypt

July 9, 2013 at 8:12 am (AWL, democracy, Egypt, islamism, Jim D, Middle East, protest, revolution)

The following article (from the Workers Liberty website) was written on 4 July, before yesterday’s killings. Also, since the article was written, the appointment of al Baradei has been blocked by fundamentalists. Nevertheless, this is the best analysis of the present situation in Egypt I’ve seen to date:

Cairo protesters

Above: Muslim Brotherhood members sit in front of soldiers blocking the road to the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo yesterday

There has been in effect a military coup, which apparently is going to install an interim government – consisting of a Muslim religious leader (from al Azhar, which is a kind of ‘state’ mosque/university), the Coptic Christian Pope, and secular leader al Baradei. Of course the army will hold real power. Supposedly there will be new parliamentary and presidential elections.

I think it’s likely that the military authorities will organise elections for several reasons, although of course they are very unlikely to do so immediately. The key impetus behind the coup is presumably the army’s desire for order, stability. A huge factor here is that the army receives vast amounts of money from the US. That isn’t dependent on their ability to control things in Egypt – but obviously their general strategic usefulness is somewhat undermined if they can’t control things in Egypt. Mursi and the Brotherhood’s chief sin, from the military’s point of view, is that he has fomented chaos and unrest. His second sin is that – to some degree (it would be wrong to overstate it) – he refused to play ball with the army, and mounted his own ‘coup’ last year.

But the army will be under considerable pressure from Obama to organise elections. Obama is sure to – indirectly, at least – sanction the new arrangement; but it will be very embarrassing if this ends up being indefinite military rule.

In any case, despite the apparent support among wide layers of anti-Mursi protestors for the coup, only very recently the army was unpopular, and there were demonstrations against it. The army ruled between the fall of Mubarak and Mursi being elected. They were hated. Unless they go for massive repression, elections will have to be held at some point in the relatively near future.

Two factors count against this, however. First, there’s the issue of whether or not the Brotherhood will fight. Tonight they’re being very belligerent. Will they keep that up?

The second – harder to assess – factor is that the army is what’s often called the ‘secret state’ – it has its own ambitions and ‘laws’ which often seem to fly in the face of rational analysis, laws dictated by its internal logic, financial interests, and so on. What is probably true of the army tops isn’t necessarily true of the institution itself at the next level down – the less obviously political level. In other words there’s something very unpredictable about the army.

There is the possibility that tonight’s coup will drag Egypt down the road of Algeria in the early/mid nineties, or Syria today. The dynamics are very different to Syria (where you have a vicious dictatorship fighting a rebellion which is Islamist-dominated). Algeria is a more troubling model: Islamists won elections, and the army intervened to prevent them taking office, resulting in years of catastrophically bloody civil war.

My first guess – maybe I’m being ridiculously sanguine – is that this won’t go down the Algeria road. Nobody knows what the military resources of the Brotherhood are, but it seems unlikely they are equipped to take on the army (and one of the things which seems clear from this confrontation is that the Brotherhood doesn’t have much base in the army, at least not enough to split it – though I suppose we’ll see…)

Armed struggle will favour those at the Brotherhood’s fringes who come from that sort of background. It’s true one of Mursi’s more bewildering acts was to appoint an old-school armed-struggle jihadi as Mayor of Luxor (a fantastically provocative act – though the guy later resigned).

The core of the Brotherhood is basically very middle class – the ‘pious middle class’, as one commentator calls them. They’re not really a street-fighting movement. That’s not to say they don’t have a street-fighting element – clearly, they do (and it’s been active over the past year). But if the Brotherhood launches into all out civil-war with the military it is likely it will lose its core constituency, who don’t want that. Of course things can spiral out of control.

But I think there’s a lot, at the moment, which might prevent that.

That is, I would have thought the Brotherhood would make the same calculation I have: the army will be forced to make good its promise to hold elections fairly soon, and what the Brotherhood needs to do is win them again.

Could they? In a sense this question points to one of the main explosive issues which underlies the last week’s events. Is what we have seen – as many of the protestors claim – a decisive break of huge numbers of former Mursi supporters from the government (rendering it, for one thing, democratically illegitimate)? The millions of signatures calling for his resignation suggest that could be true. Anecdotally, there are lots of people who voted for Mursi in the second round who now regret it.

Or is it just that the anti-Mursi forces have mobilised on a far greater scale than before (Mursi only won the election with 51% of the vote)?

That is, are the antagonistic forces more or less the same as they were before, ie at the time of the elections – it’s just they’re all out on the street?

If they are, it could well be that Mursi (or some other Brother) could win new elections. If they do some kind of deal with the even-more right-wing Salafi movement (which they could well do – the Brotherhood could eat them for breakfast politically), this is especially so.

And the secular/liberal opposition is hopelessly divided, and will be unlikely to put up a single candidate (not that this would be what we would want, anyway).

Indeed, a large factor in the current situation is the utter, utter bankruptcy of the main secular liberal opposition – those gathered in the National Salvation Front. For sure these people have actively encouraged military intervention.

The Brotherhood’s English-speaking spokespeople have played this very cleverly, I think – focusing on the issue of the coup, that this is the army overturning an elected government, and so on. It’s hard to judge how much weight this argument carries in Egypt – less, I think. In Egypt the Brotherhood will fundamentally pose the issue as about God: the trouble with the army is that they are obstructing the will of God.

An element in the anti-Mursi protests, including on the demonstrations, is pro-Mubarak: the candidate who came a close second in the presidential election was a representative of the old regime (which is why a lot of people voted for Mursi). But I’m not sure how far active supporters of the old Mubarak regime are likely to turn out on demos. That the protestors are overwhelmingly – and with tragic naivety – in support of the coup seems clear. But that’s a different matter.

There have been anti-army slogans, too; and of course there have been calls for a general strike, etc. But these more far-sighted forces seem to be in a minority.

Fundamentally, the anti-Mursi movement is a continuation of the revolution in 2011, and both the liberals and the army have piggy-backed on it. But that revolutionary movement – that is, the secular youth movements, the workers’ movement, too – have no coherent political projext at all, right now. The youth movements are very divided, mainly eschew ‘politics’ in the traditional sense, and hace little base among the poor.

The workers’ movement, of course, is a fantastically significant development. But it has no political voice (the Democratic Labour Party is tiny). It is striking that the call put out today for a general strike by the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services is focused entirely on Mursi and says not a single word about the army or the threat of a coup.

So there’s nobody, right now, who can present an alternative leadership to the Brotherhood on the one hand and the army and the liberals on the other.

The army’s position as arbiter of the nation is very fragile – as I say, it’s not long since there were big protests against the army. I imagine even the most starry-eyed people on the streets tonight cheering the coup will be aware, really, that the army is simply the old regime – literally – and if this is a victory it’s a very unhappy, unsatisfactory, and dangerous one.

The questions will be – will the Brotherhood fight? And how quickly will the mass movement oppose the new in-fact military regime?

This is a very volatile and dangerous moment in time.

1 Comment

  1. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    While he’s an odious neocon I fear Walter Russell Meade has a clearer view of Egypt’s immediate future than most commentators:

    Ultimately, the controlling reality in Egypt remains that nobody in Egypt or outside of it knows how to build the kind of country and society Egyptians want. What could transform Egypt into an East Asian style economic powerhouse, or even a Turkish style success story? The IMF and the World Bank don’t have an answer; the Egyptian establishment doesn’t have an answer; the Obama administration doesn’t have an answer; the Islamists don’t have an answer; the liberal twitterati don’t have an answer; the generals don’t have an answer.

    But life doesn’t stop just because no one knows what to do. Egypt must be governed even if it can’t be governed well. The next stage of Egypt’s revolution will be about the construction of a government without hope. Armies can be surprisingly good at that kind of work; order without hope is their stock in trade. The army has not exactly covered itself with glory in the days since the coup, but when hope fades, force is what remains.

    So what if Egypt’s problems are genuinely irresolvable? – if there are way too many people living in a country which is at least 95% desert, has no oil and where a significant part of the inhabitable bit is likely to cease to be so as sea levels rise?

    We on the left are very fond of warnings about environmental catastrophism and of that glib line about socialism or barbarism but only ever at an abstract global level.

    But what does one say about and to an ancient nation of 84 million people who appear utterly doomed by history, geography and demographics and for whom even the barest survival depends upon the Saudis and Americans continuing indefinitely to provide the foreign currency to buy food imports.

    If they were to embrace socialism would the desert suddenly bloom, the waters stop rising, the farms magically double their output, the unlettered and ignorant and bigoted masses become enlightened?

    Once when there were many fewer Egyptians, a Soviet Union willing and able to offer true fraternal aid, a pan-Arab secular nationalism that could theoretically one day produce a true United Arab Republic and share the oil wealth – then there might have been a socialist path for Egypt – but now?

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