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Egypt – why Morsi fell

The Battle for Egypt - link to Al-Jazeera special coverage on EgyptOh, hello again Mr ElBaradei. It’s been well over two years since I last wrote about Egypt. Since then, there’s been a lot of changes. But in a rather peculiar way, things are the same again. A heavy-handed and out-of-touch presidency is toppled by a de facto alliance of a millions-strong insurgency and the military, and once again the mercurial Mohamed ElBaradei prepared to act as an interim figure until things die down and elections are called.

The only difference between this time and last is, unlike ElBaradei and his military friends, his predecessor – the hapless Mohammed Morsi – actually had democratic credentials he could brag about. Oh, and that ElBaradei actually made it into the interim’s chair on this occasion.

The scenes that have played out on our screens again this last week are inspiring and deeply worrying all at once. Millions taking to the street is enough to stir any socialist, regardless of how cynical they may have become. But seeing it mobilise, agitate for and support a temporary military takeover is something else. That will require a post of its own, so the question I want to confine myself here to is how Egypt found itself convulsed by a revolutionary crisis two short years after Mubarak’s departure, and one year since Egypt’s first properly democratic – at least by internationally-recognised standards – presidential election. Let’s begin with the basics.

As a rule, while not adept at fomenting them Trotskyists nevertheless have a good understanding of the dynamics of revolutions, and the standard frame of Trotsky’s permanent revolution stands up well in this case. Egypt has a growing but still subaltern presence in the global economic order. Its healthy GDP growth figures(5.1% per annum before the revolution, 1.8 and 1.5 per cent each year since) belies chronic unemployment, poverty wages and spiralling prices. While the state was a significant factor in the economy – a legacy of Nasserism – Egypt’s development has also been held back by Mubarak’s grotesque dictatorship. While undoubtedly resting on a measure of popular consent (as all dictators do), one of its key props of support was the United States. In words that ring true for Mubarak as they did for Somoza, as Harry Truman put it “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard”. As the declining but still dominant global hegemon, it has long been in the USA’s strategic interests to maintain a friendly regime in Egypt as both the most populous and potentially powerful Arab state; and as home to the vital Suez Canal. Control of this arterial waterway is absolutely paramount to any who seek to dominate the Middle East. Unfortunately for the ancien regime Egypt’s economic problems could not be untangled from the dead hand of political authoritarianism and economic subordination. Hence when it came to the crunch, the antagonisms arising from mass unemployment and the absence of basic liberties were too much for Mubarak to keep a lid on. And off to the dustbin he went.

The problem is, from the viewpoint of Trotsky’s theory, the Arab Spring in Egypt stopped well short of solving the country’s problems. For the fetters placed on Egyptian capitalism by dictatorship and foreign domination to be swept aside and the long-term issues of its underdevelopment to be addressed, their resolution depends on the revolution being socialist in character. It might have been a while since one of those has come along, but the point stands. The ‘indigenous’ capitalism of a state in Egypt’s position is incapable of consistently addressing developmental issues because the domestic bourgeoisie are compromised by the immediate interests they have in the present set up. Hence rounded out development of a nation like Egypt depends on the working class via its revolutionary party taking into ownership the commanding heights of the economy. And in so doing, the question of the development of Egyptian capitalism becomes one of the development of Egyptian socialism.

However, one would need a magnifying glass to identify the influence revolutionary socialism has in Egypt at this juncture. Therefore the assumption of revolutionary leadership by the Muslim Brotherhood some time after Mubarak was deposed would likely store trouble up for itself. They did not have a programme to address Egypt’s underdevelopment. They did not have a programme that could satisfy the aspirations of the street. Nor did they have a programme for the modernisation of the Egyptian state apparatus. As a movement whose core constituency was the petit bourgeois, sections of the urban middle class, landowners, and what remains of the peasantry all it could achieve, at best, was a fudge. It wasn’t that Morsi’s leadership had ‘failed’. It was always doomed to do so because the Brotherhood was structurally incapable of satisfying the revolution’s appetite. The social forces it represented, ultimately, were tied too much to the prevailing state of affairs. And when revolutions go hungry, they have the awful habit of consuming their children.

But, of course, Morsi’s leadership did fail. Just because history’s cards are stacked against you doesn’t mean your actions have zero bearing on the outcome of the game. And by all accounts, his presidency was a disaster. To be fair, and as you might expect, inheriting a state apparatus stuffed with Mubarak place men found Morsi at a disadvantage from day one. Nor were things helped by having to fight turf wars with the army. It’s in this context that his November decree that exempted his decisions from judicial or any kind of oversight must be viewed. With the army temporarily sidelined and any incoming legal challenges to his summer purge of the top brass headed off, Morsi’s decree was a provocation to others involved in drawing up Egypt’s new constitution. Denounced as a “new pharaoh”, liberal and secular elements quit the constituent assembly and violent street scenes manifested. The decree was later reversed, though peculiarly maintained the effects of the decree stood. When is a withdrawal not a withdrawal? Nevertheless the constitutional referendum, held on December 15th, passed it into law – including controversial sections on Sharia-derived jurisprudence. Perhaps more interesting was the constitution’s attempt to ameliorate the military to the new system of governance. They enjoyed a special self-appointed committee that dealt with “military matters” and controlled the defence budget. They also retained the right to try civilians for crimes of harm against the armed forces, however that may be so defined.

Unfortunately, for Morsi, while this was a clever-clever piece of politicking it did not wash with the masses outside. From the resumption of protests in Tahrir Square that December a febrile mood had the nation gripped. Dozens lay dead after clashes with the police. Matters definitely weren’t helped by a perceived softness toward a crackdown on Hamas influence in the eastern Sinai, or turning a blind eye to sectarian murder. Perhaps most stupid of all Morsi’s decisions was the appointment of Adel el-Khayat as governor of Luxor. Presumably, this attempt to shore up his support among the ultra-reactionary phalanx of Salfaist politicians blinded him to the small matter that he was associated with a group that killed 58 tourists in 1997. I’m sure the bulk of his Muslim Brotherhood base would be okay with that. Wider sections of society less so.

Among the list of manoeuvring and front-and-back stage battling you will be hard pressed to find anything approaching a social programme. Instead, what Morsi’s one year in office represented was an attempt to consolidate an authoritarian presidency in a volatile situation, albeit one that allowed the contradictions to build and, on occasion, taking a stick and stirring them up some more. Ultimately, he tried to rule in the old way when the masses were not willing to be so ruled. And despite his undoubted mass support the Brotherhood, or the bulk of its sociological composition, do not represent Egypt’s future.

Morsi may be gone, for now, and the Brotherhood on the receiving end of the military lash once more. But even the army won’t be able to keep a lid on things. They may enjoy popular support right now, but in one, two, three months time? I’ll return to this in another post.

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