L’Etat, C’est Nous: Who will control the Egyptian state?

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The other possibility is that the young revolutionaries behind January 25 and now June 30 decide that with tens of millions of people behind them (a very different situation than existed after the January 25 revolution, in which far fewer people actively took part), they can afford to go for the proverbial knock-out blow. Indeed, with the economy in tatters and the country on the precipice of unprecedented civil strife, the military is potentially in a far weaker position now than it was after Mubarak’s departure.

Αναδημοσίευουμε τμήματα από άρθρο που εμφανίστηκε στο Al Jazeera σχετικά με τη συγκυρία στην Αίγυπτο. Ο συγγραφέας ανήκει προφανώς στο “δημοκρατικό” στρατόπεδο, και όπως κάθε ένας που ανήκει σ’αυτό έχει ως ορίζοντα του, αναγκαστικά την κατάληψη του κράτους (ανεξάρτητα αν το λέει ή όχι, και αυτός το λέει).  Θέτει όμως ορισμένα από τα βασικά ζητήματα της συγκυρίας με ενδιαφέροντα τρόπο (η έμφαση σε ορισμένα σημεία δική μας):

After 887 days of protests, tear gas, tanks, camels, horses, tent cities, marches, birdshot, live ammunition, ultras, great music, torture, rape, disappointments, spears, knives, Facebook campaigns, undercover thugs, military detentions, men with scimitars, show trials, elections, referendums, annulments, arson, police brutality, negotiations, machinations, committees, strikes, street battles, foreign bailouts, extreme theatre, revolutionary graffiti, television drama, Leninist study circles, and Salafi sit-ins, Egypt’s young revolutionaries have managed to do the near impossible: force the “nizzam” – the system – to restart a deeply flawed transition process in a manner which, at least at the surface, puts civilians in charge of a fraught transition process that was likely doomed the first time around the moment SCAF took control.

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The last two and a half years have largely flowed more or less as one might have imagined once SCAF assumed control of the transition. The military’s broad control of Egyptian politics for half a century, it’s huge role in the economy – including in the transition to a neoliberal order that was supposed to weaken the grip of the old elites but broadly strengthened it, its highly authoritarian and patriarchal nature, and its guaranteed support from its major Western and Arab sponsors, all left it with little incentive or even ability to move the country along a path that would actually produce freedom, dignity, social justice, and an overall better life for most Egyptians.

The problem was, and remains, that the only way for the revolution to achieve its core goals would be literally to create a new state – a new set of power relations and institutions through which they flow that would profoundly redistribute social, economic and political power throughout Egyptian society. But to do this they would have to take on, and defeat, the military and the order it represented. As long as the military controls the political and economic process in Egypt, the vast majority of Egyptians will live well below their economic and political potential.

The honeymoon between the military and the revolutionaries was over not long after it began, as the military launched waves of assaults on and even massacres of demonstrators and activists, detaining thousands, most without civilian trials, even as the deep state began to shore up its political footing through the emerging constitutional, legislative and electoral process. In the summer and fall of 2011, spring and fall of 2012, revolutionary forces returned to the streets and battled the military, and ultimately the Brotherhood-regime, not with any hope of finishing the revolution, but to ensure it wasn’t completely lost.

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Natural allies, under the right conditions

The Muslim Brotherhood was well poised to become a major player in the post-Mubarak order, not merely because of its well-known history, popularity and organisational strength, but because during the previous generation its leaders had been, however, hesitantly, integrated into the economic elite, giving them enough stake in the system so that the movement could be counted on to play by the rules if and when they began to assume political power.

As highly patriarchal and authoritarian institutions, the military and the Brotherhood had the potential for significant cooperation, especially once the economic interests of the senior leadership moved towards those of the rest of the Egyptian elite (a process that began while leaders like now deposed President Morsi and Khaiter al-Shater were still in prison). Indeed, in hindsight the Brotherhood’s purge of younger and more progressive members in the later 00’s seems as much a clearing house of anyone who’d challenge this process of integration – the neoliberalisation of the Ikhwan – as an act of doctrinal purification.

The present situation, in which the military has deposed a Brotherhood President, was not inevitable. Had Morsi not done such an abysmal job as President, the military and the deep state it shepherds would have lived quite happily under a constitutional system that left its power and budgets largely outside the bounds of the emerging religiously-grounded political system, whose imposition of a conservative vision on society served the interests of the power elite as a whole much as the rise of social conservatism in the United States has served its economic elite quite well.

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Who’s playing whom will become clear in the coming months. The only way the “rebellion” will complete its revolutionary transformation is if it fundamentally transforms the Egyptian economy and the deeply buried political networks that still control it. And the military will do whatever it can to prevent this from happening.

There are two ways that such a transformation could occur. The first is that the renewed transition process creates a functioning political system in which, as has occurred in many post-authoritarian states in the last 20 years, democratically elected political leaders gradually drain power from once dominant militaries (Turkey and Latin America are the best examples of this process). The Egyptian military clearly understands this danger. It will thus be very interesting to see how it tries to manipulate the process to ensure its long-term independence and control over its economic empire against an emerging political elite that will at some point feel secure enough directly to challenge its prerogatives.

The danger here is that as the new system becomes more established, one-time idealists and rebels will become be coopted into the existing system before they have a chance to change it.

The other possibility is that the young revolutionaries behind January 25 and now June 30 decide that with tens of millions of people behind them (a very different situation than existed after the January 25 revolution, in which far fewer people actively took part), they can afford to go for the proverbial knock-out blow. Indeed, with the economy in tatters and the country on the precipice of unprecedented civil strife, the military is potentially in a far weaker position now than it was after Mubarak’s departure.

Few would have imagined that Egyptians would turn on the venerable Muslim Brotherhood as quickly as they have. The military is arguably even more respected, but if revolutionary leaders-turned-politicians can find the right language to explain to ordinary Egyptians the military’s role in denying them the “freedom, dignity and social justice” promised by the revolution the Egyptian people could demand the reining in of the military’s political independence and economic power.

Here, while few Egyptians were willing to entrust the governance of Egypt “to a bunch of twenty-somethings who’ve never had a job” (as many an older Egyptian expressed to me even as they thanked them for leading the revolution), the “adults” have made such a mess of the transition that people will likely be more willing to give the kids a real share of power this time round.

The question then becomes, how can the transitional leadership demand that a serious economic transformation in the interests of the mass of poor and working class Egyptians be part of the architecture of the new system, and how they will deal with the inevitable attempts by the military to prevent such a development? The Tamarod petition that relaunched the revolution hints at such an agenda, with its “rejection” of continued Egyptian “begging” for international loans, and “following in the footsteps of the USA,” whose neoliberal economic agenda has profoundly shaped the Egyptian economy for the last four decades.

Beware of technocrats

But its advocacy of a government of “technocrats” is quite naïve, as the job of technocrats, despite the connotation of the term, is precisely to enact highly ideological policies that inevitably benefit elites at the expense of the majority of people. Indeed, Egypt has a long and ruinous history of technocratic rule, from British colonialism to USAID and IMF, who have in the guise of a supposedly apolitical and scientific agenda ensured the ever greater concentration of wealth and power among a small elite and the marginalisation and immiseration of the mass of Egyptians.

In the end, there can be no technocratic transition. Tamarod is going to have to outline a specific political agenda that can achieve the goals of the revolution by curtailing the power of the military and economic elite that has governed Egypt for decades, and it’s going to have to convince Egyptians both that this this agenda is realisable and worth returning back to the streets again and again to realise.

The Egyptian military stands in the way of revolution, and sooner or later the revolutionaries will again have to take it on directly. The question is: Who does the Egyptian state belong to, the military and the power elite, or the people?  If the revolutionaries who have won two extraordinary victories in less than three years can find a way to keep the tens of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to oust Morsi in the ring and on their side, they might just win the fight. But to do that they will need to develop and articulate the kind of progressive ideology that economic, political and religious elites around the world have spent decades doing everything in their power to delegitimise. It’s a battle whose stakes involve us all.

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