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Egypt’s day of terror

The Battle for Egypt - link to Al-Jazeera special coverage on EgyptEgypt’s day of terror has been brewing for a long time. 18 months ago, Mubarak’s regime suffered a mortal body blow on Egypt’s Day of Rage as millions poured onto the streets. Approximately two weeks later Mubarak had been swept from power by an alliance of convenience of ancien regime’s opponents, and a military presenting itself as a neutral arbiter and guarantor of stability. The problem then became one typical of the fall of authoritarian governments. They are brittle things, despite the varying levels of repression they meted out during their life time, but at the same time the whole apparatus of secret policemen and stupid brutality can temporarily keep a lid on the contradictions building up in a developing society. Following Mubarak’s overthrow there was less a carnival of the oppressed and more a maelstrom of political antagonism, looting and violence. It could not be otherwise.

Then came Egypt’s brief foray into liberal democracy. As they go, for a country as volatile as Egypt and with many of “tasks” of the revolution unfulfilled, rushing headlong into the model of a winner-takes-all presidency similar to the United States was probably not the most thought-through of constitutional moves. It works in the US because the main parties are qualitatively the same. It works in Britain because the cleavage the two main parties line up along has long been rendered stable and institutionalised. It’s almost as if that structure was chosen because it was bound to fail. But even had a less adversarial system been arrived at, governing post-revolutionary Egypt would have been a tough call quite apart from protests, disputes, pogroms against Coptics, economic crisis, and Islamist incursions in the Sinai – because the new (revamped) state existed in a relationship of dual power.

In Marxist accounts of revolution, dual power has a very exact meaning. It refers to a fleeting moment in the revolutionary process where the traditional classes retain their grip on the old state machinery, but running in parallel and institutionally opposed to it is a state form in embryo: the network of directly elected representatives of working people organised into councils or soviets. But I’m going to muddy the categorical waters. Egypt throughout Morsi’s tenure was subject to dual power of a different kind. On the one hand you had the civilian administration enjoying, at least on paper, the legitimacy of the country’s first elected presidency. But opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s president was the military that, in 2011, acted in a Bonapartist fashion to prevent revolutionary “excess”. The state for the last year was, in effect, the site of an institutional civil war. Of manoeuvres of place and position, of hirings and firings. Unfortunately for the Muslim Brotherhood, while they were disadvantaged in this game from the moment Morsi took office their man was far from an astute player. Dishing out decrees is not the way to negotiate a delicate situation, for instance.

When popular forces opposed to Morsi took to the streets time had run out for the government. In one way, it was an opportunity for military hawks to remove a movement from power they had repressed all their careers. But on the other hand, historical necessity moved them. Just as in 2011, Egypt’s armed forces were no institutional island. Rank-and-file personnel come from families directly affected by unemployment, falling wages and poverty. The revolutionary pressures that brought the millions out onto the streets affected the troops like a virus. Had the top brass set their face against it, a split in the armed forces was likely – as we have seen in other Arab Spring revolutions – or they would have been swept away by a junior officer takeover. The army can act like a Bonaparte, as a ‘third force’ when contending classes and class fractions are balanced out and unable to shift one another. But this too is conditioned by and subject to those ebbs and flows as well.

The military were pressured on pain of a second, perhaps more uncertain and bloody revolution to make their move. But in resolving one set of contradictions several more, hydra-like, sprung up in their place. Morsi now “enjoys” the protection of the army but what to do about the Muslim Brotherhood who, despite occupying a spectrum of Islamist opinion and neither represent rising nor progressive social forces, nevertheless command massive support and millions of votes? Governments of whatever stripe facing an insurgency typically have two options that don’t necessarily exclude one another: co-option and repression. Unfortunately for the military and their puppet civilian administration, their promised transition to democratic rule “as soon as possible” forestalled as soon as they removed Morsi from office. The Muslim Brotherhood is not an homogenous lump, but bonds of solidarity and collective experience have continually been reinforced over decades of underground existence. Barely one year into democratic rule in “ordinary” times it would be horrendously difficult to split and co-opt parts of such a movement into a power sharing arrangement. But impossible when the army and its allies in the state machinery had stymied and resisted the Brotherhood from the day of Morsi’s inauguration. Getting them to engage with the reconciliation/power sharing process, in whole or in part, was never going to happen.

Yet the relatively peaceful permanent protest camps could not be allowed to stand either. In and of themselves they were not disruptive, but they weighed on the military’s brains like an alp. In Egypt’s febrile conjuncture each camp was a reminder that not only did a mass Islamist opposition still existed, but also that – despite the popular support the military can command – it faced an equally popular movement, and one that could capitalise on economic and political discontent and grow further. It could not stand and today the military have tried to drown this possibility in blood.

Where now? The Brotherhood are back underground and the declaration of a state of emergency signals a return to dictatorship. And so the wheel appears to have turned full circle. The revolution is stalled and democracy, as stilted as it was, is dead. At least for the moment. By acting in this way the military now puts itself in the firing line. The antagonism between it and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be resolved institutionally, but it too will be unable to meet the hopes of the millions who begged it to take power. As a new underground war against the Brotherhood starts smiting other perceived enemies of the new regime, and for as long as Egypt’s protracted economic problems go unresolved the generals sitting very pretty tonight could find arrayed against them the bulk of the nation’s population in a short space of time. And what then?

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