One of the most striking features of the current Egyptian crisis has been the response by most of the US Left and progressives. It is not that US leftists and progressives are ignoring the crisis, but that there has been an utter failure to engage with Egyptian leftists and progressives despite the fact that the latter have been writing regular analyses of events, analyses that frequently differ from that created on this side of the Atlantic.
In a political situation that ranks as among one of the most complicated and contradictory of our lifetime, the points of view of Egyptian leftists and progressives have been largely ignored here in the USA or treated as if they are mouthpieces for the Egyptian military if they have stood against the Morsi government.
In order for us—in the USA—to get a better sense of the complications and tragedies connected with the ongoing struggle in Egypt, one must recognize that there has been an on-oing battle for much of the last century between two distinct “projects.” Those projects, and their progeny, help to set the context for the engagements underway.
National populism vs. Islamism
Beginning with the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and ultimately led to the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser as president, a particular current emerged that has been described by Egyptian Marxist theorist Samir Amin as a “national populist project.” Arising out of the Egyptian anti-monarchist/nationalist movement that had begun much earlier, this project was a nationalist initiative at progressive change that aimed at moving aside classes and formations that were compromised with colonialism and proceeded to engage in progressive and anti-imperialist development. It was not, however, the same thing as socialism. In national populist projects, as witnessed in Egypt under Nasser, there was limited political democracy, capitalism as such went unchallenged, and the process of change was led by a small group. Though Nasser had considerable popular support, there were very restricted means for the grassroots to involve themselves in the change process. Similar change processes were untaken in other states in the global South including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Sudan and much later, Libya.
Operating within the national populist coalitions was generally to be found the political Left, though the relationship was almost always rocky. Nasser, for instance, had a strong relationship with the Soviet Union, but would periodically turn on the domestic Egyptian Left. This tension resulted, throughout the Arab World, in constant debates and struggles within the Left as to how best to relate to nationalist leaders, such as Nasser in Egypt and Qassem in Iraq, who were perceived as anti-imperialists while at the same time being unwilling (and sometimes unable) to advance the domestic change process very far. This tension resulted in historic miscalculations by the Left, including in Iraq and the Sudan where the Left constituted a significant force but held an almost uncritical stand toward nationalist leaders.
Countering the national populist projects were two main forces. The obvious one was external and was represented by the imperial interests of the global North. They and their domestic allies were constantly trying to undermine independent development and turn these various nation-states into neo-colonies.
The other opponents were those forces who came to be known as Islamists. This movement has its origins in the 19th century and early 20th century where an intellectual movement emerged against both Western imperialism and republican-nationalism (and the imperialism of the Ottoman Empire). The Islamists of the 21st century, led by organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, had a very different project. Their project was Pan-Islamist in nature and thoroughly reactionary at its core. It called for a return to a mythical caliphate state.
Within the Islamist camp there was, and is, a wide variety of opinions and political tendencies ranging from forces such as the ruling Islamist party in Turkey (Justice and Development Party—a pro-neo-liberal party operating within the republic framework) to the clerical fascists of Al Qaeda. From the very beginning the Islamists have seen themselves at war with the national populist project, both literally and figuratively. In the case of Egypt this led to an attempted assassination of Nasser in the 1950s that was followed by the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in retaliation.
During the Nasser years the Egyptian military establishment had at least a progressive, nationalist veneer, supporting the ruling party (the Arab Socialist Union). It remained committed to a nationalist project but could never be described as a “people’s army.” With Nasser’s death and the rise of Anwar Sadat, things changed. Sadat realigned Egypt internationally, broke with the USSR and turned to the USA. The Egyptian political establishment was realigned and in so doing, forces on the Left had to be marginalized, if not crushed altogether.
It is fair to say that beginning with the Sadat regime but continuing under Mubarak, the Egyptian political establishment engaged in a bizarre dance with the Islamists. The establishment found them to be a convenient tool in moving against the Egyptian Left, the latter suffering bitterly from repression under Sadat and Mubarak. When the Left was successfully marginalized or when the Islamists appeared to be gaining too much strength, the Egyptian political establishment would turn against them. Nevertheless, and despite the repression that the Muslim Brotherhood experienced, it paled in comparison to that experienced by the Left. Additionally, the Brotherhood, in part due to the dance that it conducted with the Egyptian establishment and in part due to its base among small-scale entrepreneurs, was able to accumulate sufficient resources in order to sustain itself and its basic organization (including the provision of certain services to many among the poorest in Egyptian society).
Here we should hasten to add that despite the appearance of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization of the Egyptian poor, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood came from the landed gentry during the Sadat era and that, combined with their social base among the small-scale entrepreneurs, is more reflective of the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics and orientation than the social programs that they provide.
My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend
The events that unfolded beginning January 2011 and which led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime were not initiated by the formal political opposition to Mubarak. Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood took, at least initially, a very passive role in the movement, and the uprising was explicitly not religious in orientation. In one of the most outstanding aspects of the 2011 uprising, when the Mubarak regime attempted to incite Muslim/Coptic Christian conflict, Muslims came to the defense of the Coptics and refused to fall into the trap set by the provocateurs.
The heady days of the 2011 revolution led many of its organizers to misunderstand a basic precept of struggle, one quite eloquently articulated by Machiavelli 500 years ago: a disciplined unit can always defeat a mob. In the case of 2011, the Mubarak regime was overthrown through popular will and the eventual unwillingness of the military to crush the movement. But in the subsequent months, the actual organizational structure and preparedness of the Muslim Brotherhood situated the Islamists to win the elections, albeit by a slim majority. The lack of effective organization among the Egyptian Left and progressive forces placed them at a decided disadvantage compared with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and, ultimately, the military.
It is becoming commonplace for commentators in the US media to bemoan the collapse of the anti-Mubarak alliance but historical context is frequently missing from such ruminations. The anti-Mubarak alliance was always fragile. It was not driven by a single organization or ideology. There was no national democratic front or national liberation front uniting the opposition and prepared to assume power and work through an effective government of national unity. The objectives of the constituencies of the anti-Mubarak alliance were dramatically different, as became clear almost as soon as Mohamed Morsi assumed the presidency of Egypt.
In the middle of this maelstrom sat the Egyptian military, well-funded, equipped and determined to assert a new role. To some extent analogous to the Turkish military, the Egyptian military sees itself as the inheritors and custodians of a particular nationalist project. They see themselves as, largely, Muslims who, nevertheless, have no interest in a caliphate project. They have shifted to the Right from being an army in a national populist project to being an army in service to neo-colonial project (under Sadat and Mubarak), but in either case, their self-conception appears to be that of a pro-nationalist army.
There is one other feature to the Egyptian military that is worth noting: it serves as an economic organization, to some extent housing a state bourgeoisie or capitalist class. The military, or at a minimum the top officer corps, control enterprises (analogous to the role played by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army). Thus, the Egyptian military not only serves and services other elements of the ruling class, but also plays an independent political and economic role in the Egyptian power bloc.
Morsi and the grand miscalculation
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood became dizzy with success upon their election. As is all too common following an electoral victory, there is frequently a failure to properly judge the mandate upon which one has gained victory and instead to believe that one’s victory is a victory for one’s entire program. So it seems to have been the case with Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Instead of working to build a broader ruling coalition, the Morsi administration made steps towards what appeared to many Egyptians as a full-court press. Over the year of the Morsi administration, the Brotherhood embraced a neoliberal economic agenda, despite the fact that the anti-Mubarak uprising was as much an economic revolt as it was political. Coptic Christians came under attack and there appeared to be little energy by the Morsi administration to do anything about it. There were increased assaults on women—including the use of rape—as forms of political repression of anti-Morsi forces.
In one of the least covered arenas, workers continued to be suppressed and trade union rights were being undermined. And, of course, to add insult to injury, the Morsi administration made an authoritarian power grab that, while defeated, convinced many that this was an administration that had not the least bit interest in democracy.
It is important to delineate these points in order to better understand both the factors that led to the June 2013 events (resulting in the overthrow of Morsi), but also that the Islamists are perceived by a wide spectrum of the Egyptian progressive forces as being fascistic, if not outright fascists.
This is a point that has garnered almost no attention in the US progressive media despite its potential implications. This may be the result of some people literally not coming across such analyses, or it might be the result of such allegations being dismissed due to the common usage by US progressives of the term “fascist” to describe any sort of right-wing behavior with which we object. In either case, our failure to consider this is unacceptable because it makes it impossible to understand subsequent events and the responses that emerged on the ground.
The June quasi-uprising, coup, etc.
The events of June 2013 represented a convergence of issues and contradictions that had been developing over the past two years (even preceding the Morsi administration). The significance of a petition of 25 million to demand early elections has been largely ignored in the USA. While much attention has been given to the fact that Morsi was democratically elected, it was also the case that millions were demanding his ouster. Had this taken place in Latin America (as it has!!) against a clearly pro-US government one wonders whether there would have been the relative silence that accompanied the June 2013 events within most US Left and progressive circles. But in either case, millions were mobilized to end the Morsi administration.
Morsi could probably have pulled a rabbit out of the hat by making various concessions to the protestors, but the response from his administration was arrogant and dismissive. Earlier protests against his administration had been meet with repression and it appeared that things were gearing towards a repeat of this.
The entrance of the Egyptian army was a classic “Bonapartist” move. A popular movement had arisen against one element of the establishment (the Islamists) but had no cohesive organization or leadership. The Islamists, through their paramilitaries, was prepared to repress the popular movement. The Army saw this as their chance to take charge, and take charge they did. While many Egyptian progressives have stated or suggested that the Egyptian Army followed the will of the Egyptian people, it is probably more accurate to say that the Egyptian Army saw a potential for great instability and a developing power vacuum that they, themselves, were placed to fill. Though it is the case that the military made certain immediate appointments of civilians to key posts, it should have been clear from the beginning that despite the rhetoric, the Egyptian Army had no intention of going anywhere, at least in the near future.
The Tiananmen option
There is no reason to have expected anything other than resistance to the ouster of Morsi. Despite the millions who protested Morsi and called for his ouster (including a segment of the Islamists themselves), it remained the case that the Islamists constitute a mighty force in Egypt.
The pro-Morsi protests, and specifically the encampments, along with the knowledge that the pro-Morsi forces did have paramilitary capacity, presented a choice for the military. They could have proceeded forward with a government of national unity and prepared for elections, attempting to include some elements of the Islamists forces within this overall process. This seems to have been the course of action that was being advocated by several foreign governments and advisors. The other option was the one that was chosen: a Tiananmen-style massive crackdown aimed at destroying the capability of the Morsi forces to reorganize and prolong the crisis.
The choice of the crackdown probably flows from both the ambition of the military to regain its place as the hegemonic force advancing Egyptian capitalism as well as the conclusion that it would be impossible to achieve a lasting peace with the Brotherhood given the decades of tension, accompanied by low-intensity conflict (specifically, military actions taken by both sides at various points).
The crackdown/massacres, in addition to being heinous, have weakened the ability of the Egyptian military to assert that they are truly a force for national unity. They are claiming significant popular support, and various media reports seem to indicate a level of popular support for the crackdown, but there is no way to judge the depth of that backing at the moment.
In sum, the Egyptian military, in a fashion analogous to the circumstances in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution in France, seems to have decided that they will set the terms for the future of (capitalist) development in Egypt. The civilian class forces that would ordinarily lead such a process are either contained within the Islamists (although they do not have a nationalist project) or are weakened and fragmented. The military, then, acts the role of a political party and seeks to settle accounts with its rivals.
Whether it can do this or whether Egypt will enter into a civil war remains uncertain. In either case, the Egyptian military carried out an assault on the objectives of the original Egyptian revolutionary movement. The ability to overturn this and to place Egypt back on a course toward the social justice & democratic objectives of the 2011 Revolution will to a great extent depend on the ability of Egyptian Left and progressive forces to forge a popular, democratic alliance and split the military.
There are several implications flowing from events in Egypt that necessitate consideration.
First, in the USA the principal job of those of us on the left side of the aisle must be to insist upon non-intervention in the internal affairs of Egypt. That includes the cessation of military assistance.
While it is certainly conceivable that progressive forces in the Egyptian military pushed for the active intervention to oust Morsi, by now that debate has almost no importance. The nature and extent of the crackdown goes beyond removing a corrupt or tyrannical leader and instead moves towards a purge, one which while targeted at the Islamists at the moment, can just as easily be targeted at progressive opponents of the military in the very near future.
Second, and contrary to the conclusions raised by Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, who recently suggested that there was much in common between the lead up to the Rwanda genocide and the circumstances in Egypt, what we are witnessing is a very different sort of legacy conflict. This is not ethnic group vs. ethnic group but a struggle around two projects, though that struggle has been perverted and exists today between two main protagonists within the spectrum of capitalism.
Contrary to Rwanda or Darfur, this is a political conflict which, while quite bloody, probably has more in common with elements of the Algerian crisis that resulted in their civil war in the 1990s.
Third, within the global South there has developed new attention to what might be called “right-wing anti-imperialism.” Right-wing populism in various forms has reemerged in much of the world, but in the global South there are political tendencies and organizations that have a very particular and peculiar characteristic that is not unlike Imperial Japan at the time of World War II, i.e., the shrewd use of anti-Western and anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to advance horribly reactionary agendas (e.g., political misogynism; anti-worker; irrationalism; intolerance).
It is critically important that leftists and progressives in the global North pay attention to these developments and not assume that the mere fact that an organization, individual or tendency is at odds with global capitalism necessarily makes them progressive.
Fourth, uprisings take place even against elected governments. The fact that a government was elected does not mean that that government cannot and will not lose its mandate to govern. The circumstances for such a loss can be terribly unpredictable but under conditions where masses have concluded that there is a power-grab underway, the fact that a government has been democratically elected should not mean that the Left and progressives remain agnostic. In the case of Egypt in June 2013, a mass demand for the completion of the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution appears to have been in operation. The fact that the military intervened takes nothing away from the legitimacy of that original demand.
Fifth, it is not too late to seek a political solution to the conflict. As we are seeing in Syria at this very moment, circumstances can unfold differently than was originally intended and the optimal outcome may not be possible. Both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood need to pull back from the military option. This may be very difficult and we may be witnessing the first acts of a play of the “war to the knife.” But this option may also be one that rests in the hands of the Egyptian grassroots and their ability to intervene against both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Finally, and to go full circle, we in the USA must pay more attention to what left and progressive forces are saying within countries such as Egypt before jumping to conclusions. As the saying goes, “…seek truth from facts…” but to this should be added that we must pay attention to the analyses of people on the ground, those who have been engaged in the struggle. While we may or may not agree with their conclusions, and as such we should guard against lackey-ism, we should begin by respecting their experience and, where possible, engage in constructive dialogue in order to enrich our own analyses. To do otherwise ends up meaning objectively using an imperial frame of reference, albeit with red or pink coloring.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, a columnist for The Progressive, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be followed on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com .