Egypt: Two reactionary forces
Celebrations at the fall of Mursi are understandable, writes Yassamine Mather, but no-one should have illusions in the role of the army
The demonstrations of millions of Egyptians against political Islam are of historic importance for Egypt, the region and the Islamic world - although no-one on the left should be surprised by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain power. Having said that, the military coup that brought down the government of Mohamed Mursi presents many dangers for the revolutionary movement in Egypt and the future of the Arab spring.
First of all, it should be remembered that in December 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces withdrew its support from Mubarak, allowing a smooth transition of power to the interim government. This allowed the military to retain its key role in the new constitution. Mohammad Reza Shalgouni of the Iranian Rahe Kargar organisation is surely correct when he describes the two military interventions in 2011 and 2013 as “attempts by the Egyptian army to embrace the popular movement in order to choke it”.
This was by no means a revolutionary split within the ranks of the armed forces, when some might have sided with the protestors in Tahrir Square. It was a decision made by the highest ranks of the military forces in conjunction with the secular bourgeois democratic leaders and the Salafists. So the dangers posed by this military intervention should not be ignored or underestimated.
It is understandable that protestors on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian towns and cities celebrated the downfall of the Brotherhood and it is true that demonstrations by 17 million Egyptians, in the aftermath of historic workers’ strikes, played a significant role in toppling Mursi. This is the first mass movement of the Arab working class against political Islam and it should be welcomed. However, the army’s intervention was aimed at halting this movement in its tracks. What is surprising, then, is the laissez faire attitude of sections of the international left, who tailed the spontaneity of the demonstrators with little analysis or thought - just as they did previously when demonstrators were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Confusion about Egypt’s unfinished revolution is not limited to the left, however. Fortunately for the revolutionary forces, it also engulfs the US administration and its allies: ignorant of the region’s history and politics, they have veered between critical support for/discussions with the MB to justifying the military coup. The US went into excruciating contortions to avoid calling the coup a coup.
Robert Fisk poses the right question: “Is this reticence because millions of Egyptians demanded just such a coup - they didn’t call it that, of course - and thus became the first massed people in the world to demand a coup prior to the actual coup taking place? Is it because Obama fears that to acknowledge it’s a coup would force the US to impose sanctions on the most important Arab nation at peace with Israel? Or because the men who staged the coup might forever lose their 1.5 billion subvention from the US - rather than suffer a mere delay - if they were told they’d actually carried out a coup?”1
Loss of support
In order to understand events in Egypt we should revisit the main reasons why MB came to power; how it was that the Brotherhood managed to pass a divisive, ‘sharia-based’ constitution; why the MB was popular despite the neoliberal economic policies it pursued, combined with cronyism and corruption; why its intransigence regarding the imposition of sharia law was opposed even by its own supporters; and how in the face of growing opposition it clung to power.
There is no denying that in the absence of any serious secular organisations (most leftwing groups were banned, their members arrested and in some cases executed) at the time of Mubarak’s downfall, MB was the largest, best organised political force in the country. The Brotherhood’s success in forming the government should not have been interpreted as proof of the popularity of political Islam. The electoral success of MB was more a reflection of the weakness of other political forces. It was therefore inevitable that, once the MB tried to inject sharia law into every aspect of society, it lost much of its base. Most bourgeois parties that come to power after mass protests end up adopting ‘pragmatic’ policies, and this was true of MB as far as economic and international policies were concerned - all talk of economic justice was conveniently forgotten once negotiations with the US were underway. But the rhetoric used regarding internal issues was uncompromising and in fact became more hard-line as time went by.
MB’s original call was for daawa - preaching Islam and encouraging ‘good religious values’, but this was soon replaced with the stated aim of creating a sharia-based state under the slogan, ‘Islam is the solution’. And there was actually little pragmatism - in recent months both the language and attitude of MB strategists alarmed many Egyptians, including a large section of those who had voted for Mursi.
According to Hosameldin Elsayed, a writer on political Islam: “The group has not lived up to the people’s expectations and alienated many of the Egyptians by their power-grabbing approach and turning a blind eye to the rise of hard-liners.”2
Just like Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood used every opportunity to attack the democratic gains of the uprising that removed Mubarak from power. The ‘constitutional decree’ Mursi adopted allowed him to modify legal proposals in line with sharia law. Religious as well as secular forces opposed these changes. More than 70% of the population refused to participate in the referendum to approve the constitution.
There has always been some discrimination against the Christian (mainly Copt) minority in Egypt - constituting 10% of the population, it is the largest Christian community in the Middle East. However, in recent months it has faced new forms of sectarianism and intimidation. In accordance with sharia law, financial levies known as jizya (originally a 9th century form of taxation imposed on non-Muslims) were imposed on Copts by the Islamic gangs.
Christians have also suffered state persecution. On May 21, a Coptic teacher in Luxor was charged with blasphemy and insulting Islam on the basis of accusations made by three of her students. Colleagues and at least 10 other students testified in her favour, but the courtroom became a theatre for fundamentalists, with the father of one of the accusers telling the press outside the courthouse that “a thousand people will die” if such anti-Islamic behaviour did not cease. The criminalisation of so-called blasphemy was part and parcel of the country’s Islamist constitution pushed through by Mursi and, although the teacher’s accusers were Salafis rather than MB supporters, the Brotherhood’s constitution was blamed for this and similar incidents.
On the economic level, the Brotherhood regime stood accused of mismanagement. As I wrote last week,3 the main problem is that political Islam has no economic strategy beyond capitalism and defence of private property and, for all the talk of ‘social justice’ and defending the poor, it was predictable that no amount of financial aid from the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could rescue the economy or reduce the disparities between rich and poor.
There are serious food shortages, fuel is scarce and the price of staple food items is going up daily. Extreme poverty combined with mass unemployment has given rise to a surge in crime. Many Egyptians complain of a lack of security. With the continuing global economic crisis, some 4,500 companies have withdrawn from Egypt. There are daily strikes by civil servants and factory workers and last month strikers outside the ministry of Islamic culture prevented the Muslim Brotherhood-appointed minister from entering his office for a fortnight.
Then in the last week of June, Mursi appointed a leading figure from the hard-line Islamist group, Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which claimed responsibility for the murder of dozens of tourists in 1997, as governor of Luxor province. Egyptian tourism is not doing well, but the appointment infuriated tourism workers, who blocked the entrance to government offices in Luxor.
Mursi in particular became a hate figure for labelling all those who opposed him as agents of foreign powers. In his last speech before the army stepped in he lamented: “How can the best of leaders make major achievements in such a poisonous atmosphere?”
The situation is still volatile and, although MB has lost many of its supporters, it can still muster sufficient number of protestors to create problems for the revolutionary movement. Islamist hard-liners are very good at playing the victim when they are in opposition, but they may become ruthless dictators when in power. However, MB supporters have also been on the receiving end - over 50 demonstrators taking part in a sit-down protest were killed in one incident in Cairo. The army is laughably claiming that many of them were Syrian fighters.
Throughout last week, the Iranian regime has been crowing over the fact that the Sunni government in Egypt collapsed just 12 months after its birth, whereas in Iran the Shia Islamic Republic has survived for 34 years. Of course, there are key historical differences between the two experiences. In February 1979, the Iranian masses took to the streets and attacked the shah’s repressive forces. Prison doors were broken down by the crowds and political prisoners released. Army garrisons were ransacked and the crowds took weapons to their homes and workplaces. The offices of the shah’s secret police were occupied by the Fedayeen, and air force cadets turned their weapons against their superiors.
These gains were soon taken back by the new regime, but it took a while for the religious state to rebuild the army and its own militia. However, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution the army was not in a position to intervene and, as a result, was not a major player. The working class, national minorities and women were able to use this weakness of the state’s repressive forces to organise protests and demonstrations. Of course, the new religious state was busy building up its own military forces and a number of factors - including the war with Iraq, the treachery of Tudeh ‘official communists’ and the Fedayeen Majority, who supported the clerical regime’s repression of the working class, as well as the mistakes of the revolutionary left, contributed to the eventual defeat. The point is, however, that the destruction of the shah’s army in 1979 did allow the continuation of the revolutionary process.
In Egypt, on the other hand, the army remained intact after the 2011 uprising and is clearly a key player in Egyptian politics. No-one should underestimate the dangers it will pose once the unity of the pre-June 30 alliance, based simply around the demand for the overthrow of Mursi, breaks down and bourgeois forces, from Salafists to the National Salvation Front, really start competing for power.
1. The Independent July 4.
3. ‘Not the next stage of the revolution’, July 4.