None of the above
Calling on Egyptians to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood is insane, argues Paul Demarty
The May 23-24 first round of voting in the Egyptian presidential elections produced, as has been widely noted, the worst possible outcome for the masses, lining up the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi against erstwhile Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafiq.
It is a bad outcome indeed - but hardly unexpected, given the circumstances. Proceeding rapidly to elections following the overthrow of Mubarak would inevitably reward the best-rooted social forces going into it - that means, precisely, the army establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It may seem counter-intuitive that Shafiq recorded such strong support, given his implication in the manifold crimes of the Mubarak regime; but he seems to have been the beneficiary of innumerable chains of patronage outside the major urban centres. The MB, meanwhile, is a seriously mass force; its relatively low-level participation in the Tahrir Square protests and so forth represents, in fact, a group of highly astute political operators picking their moment. The elections - both for the presidency and legislature - would suggest that its moment has come.
There is, of course, a third major player in this drama: the American state department. While the manner of Mubarak’s downfall wrong-footed the US spectacularly, there was never any doubt that the world’s dominant state would seek to retrench its authority at the earliest possible opportunity. The pregnant silence from Washington concerning the onward march of the MB suggests that the American establishment now consider it a force with which it can do business.
All this represents the frustration of the revolutionary momentum, and also the aspirations of the left internationally. The 2011 events in Tunisia and Egypt were rightly hailed the world over as moments of immense promise; but this euphoria gave rise to a certain hubristic faith in the motor force of the revolutionary process itself. This, in retrospect, can be seen to be a step too far (albeit an error to which the Trotskyist left, especially, is prone). The Arab awakening is indeed a moment of promise - but the pay-off cannot be in the immediate term. The mass organised forces necessary to shift decisively leftwards the balance of power in the region - the ‘subjective factor’, as it is called - is lacking.
For all the disappointment in the third-place showing of left-Nasserite Hamdeen Sabbahi, this is in fact a pleasant surprise. It shows that a substantial audience exists alienated both from the corrupt army regime and the reactionary MB. Twenty percent of the vote is very much short of the mass support needed for a social revolution, but it is something to build on. Turning such people from a dead-end nationalism (which ultimately resulted, last time around, in the very regime against whom the revolution took its stand) to active pursuit of working class rule, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, is the first strategic objective for the far left.
Alas, some comrades have some funny ideas about how to reach that objective.
Step forward the reliably unreliable Socialist Workers Party - which does have an Egyptian section of its ‘international’, existing absurdly alongside another group in solidarity with the former SWP comrades in Counterfire, and thus some microscopic influence over the course of events in that country.
When the left gets excited about something, the SWP gets flatly delusional. And so Socialist Worker’s piece on the presidential elections (June 2) is a real treat. “When Egypt’s parliamentary elections produced a majority for the Muslim Brotherhood last year, many journalists and academics declared that the revolution was over,” writes Phil Marfleet, with a legible sneer. Now the jeremiads are flowing forth once more; but “they were wrong last year and are likely to be wrong again”.
He runs through the bare bones of the election results, and comments that many are calling it a “nightmare scenario”, where “Egyptians are asked to choose merely between military rule and Islamism”. For comrade Marfleet, however, “the choice is clear”: voting Shafiq is a vote against the revolution, after all.
At this point, Marfleet’s train of thought departs from Reality Station and proceeds directly to la-la land: “Revolutionary activists will not enjoy voting for Mursi,” he writes (just wait until he gets into power!). “If they do not do so, however, they are likely to experience the real nightmare scenario - a president cloned from the dictator they overthrew last year.”
Should we not be worried about Mursi’s own clerical-reactionary agenda? Apparently not: “Mursi is not in a strong position. The Brotherhood has struggled since the start of the revolution ... They have suffered many splits and defections, as it becomes clear that they can’t meet the people’s needs and expectations.” So that’s all right then. And while this inevitable process of disillusionment is going on, revolutionaries must “continue struggles over jobs, wages, union rights and for radical political change.”
There is so much wrong with this that it is difficult to know where to begin.
The revolution’s practical advantage to Marxists and socialist activists is that it has prised open an amount of political freedom, which could allow our forces to clarify their politics and start to build serious roots in the working class. The precondition for a good outcome to this process is keeping this space open. The “nightmare scenario” is not the return of some military functionary to a slightly downgraded top spot - it is any form of political rule that denies us the light and air we need to turn the situation to our advantage. The reason the second-round Hobson’s choice is part of such a possible scenario is simply that it lines up two prospective presidents who can both be expected to impose draconian rule, if allowed to get their way. Heads I win, tails you lose.
The notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is “not in a strong position” is laughably absurd. Comrade, are these the election results evidence of a ‘struggling’ organisation - one that gained the largest slice of parliamentary seats and whose candidate is the frontrunner for the top job? Do these results show that the masses are already losing their faith? The MB is reaping the benefits of its strategic nous, its eye on the long view, while the left trumpeted every passing strike in Alexandria as the ‘spark’ of momentous things to come. The SWP will not learn the importance of long-term, patient organising from the history of the Marxist movement, let alone from the Weekly Worker. Perhaps it will learn the lesson from the MB - although on this evidence, it does not look likely.
Many liberals (and, one assumes, the SWP) have an eye on Turkey as a likely analogous outcome of this process. Indeed, there is some justification for this view: the ruling ‘soft’ Islamist AKP is in uneasy accord with a politically powerful army. Yet there are also uncomfortable echoes of Iran here, where large sections of the left were happy to tail Khomeini in 1979 on the basis that he would be swept aside by the immanent logic of the revolution. It was the left that was swept aside: rounded up, butchered in their tens of thousands, the survivors scattered into exile (Turkey itself is hardly a paradise on earth for the left).
All in all, while a vote for Shafiq is certainly a vote against the revolution, a vote for Mursi is an endorsement of reactionary opposition to the godless military regime. One imputes benign intentions or irrelevance to clerical reactionaries at one’s peril.
Just before the turn of the 20th century, there was a mercifully brief fashion for so-called economism among the Russian socialist underground. The idea that the nascent workers’ movement should undertake political action against the tsarist autocracy was disdained and the economists preferred to leave that to the liberals - the working class could concentrate on carrying on the trade union battle. The economist tendency is remembered today principally for having been the subject of merciless polemics by Lenin.
However, with the SWP we have economism reduced to absurdity. For now it is not the liberal intelligentsia which is to carry on the political struggle, but Islamic fundamentalists; and we are to take heart from the fact that they struggle not against the army, but (supposedly) among themselves. Meanwhile, it is “jobs, wages, union rights” and unspecified “radical political change” for the left ...
We need to do better than that, comrades. It is not enough to call for a tactical vote against an army candidate - we need to call for the disbandment of the army, the number one existing block on political democracy in Egypt. We need to further open up space for free political association, and fight the MB for the hearts and minds it has won. Reducing our remit to ‘jobs and wages’ is erroneous in a country like Britain. In today’s Egypt, it is beyond silly.
Marfleet’s perspective, from one angle, stems from long-running political errors of the congenitally economistic SWP. It is fuelled primarily, however, by a salutary faith in the significance of last year’s events: a need to believe that the revolution is not over. Indeed, it is not. Yet this is a revolution which in its full scope has implications for all the hundreds of millions in the Arab world; it will be a long process with breakthroughs and setbacks, perhaps over the course of decades.
This revolution was never going to be as easy as Tahrir Square made it look - many protestors were of course murdered in cold blood by state forces, but in the main the Mubarak regime collapsed remarkably easily, principally because it did not really collapse at all. The left needs to put in the hard yards - that is how the Brotherhood got where it is now. Building up the MB’s vote is frankly insane.