Four years ago, with the world reeling from the unforeseen economic crisis, the world was caught even more by surprise by turmoil in North Africa. The history and development of these rebellions are described in one of the two interviews with Egyptian comrades documented here. This interview was conducted in Egypt, which some revolutionary tourists from our group visited in 2011, a few weeks after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the country's leader. At the time, there was a lot of euphoria about these events which we still deemed a “revolution”. The interview makes this apparent. There was, however, also some discontent about the interim government installed by Egypt's generals which was already having huge numbers of civilians convicted by military tribunals while the fact that the widely hated former head of state had some 800 people killed during the uprising had no consequences for him. This discontent also helped the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's win the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, as they were thought to be an alternative to the ancien régime. The MB, too, ruled with ruthless repression and the economic misery of this country, in which poverty had already been rampant, also worsened, giving rise to the largest demonstrations in Egypt's history in the summer of 2013; the military exploited this situation and took back over power.
Whereas in 2011 the lower class's unwelcome interference with history made talk of revolution somewhat plausible, events four years later were more of a bitter farce. Strictly speaking, the military had never ceded power, but only shared it with the Islamists from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2013. United in their ultimate desire for stability, the bearded fundamentalists and clean-shaved generals got along well. The Islamists tried to keep the populace in line with religious tinsel and used their credibility to create a perception of the era of corruption and cleptocracy being over. Meanwhile, the military stood by, their guns at the ready, as they were assured by the new rulers that their power, based in part on a huge business empire, would remain untouched. There is some irony in the fact that it was al-Sisi who broke this unwritten agreement and toppled Mursi, as Mursi had handpicked al-Sisi to lead the military.
As our second interview, conducted in 2014, indicates, there were two reasons for this, both of which had little to do with ideological differences such as an antagonism between secularism and Islam or between democracy and dictatorship. First, the Muslim Brotherhood was simply in over its head in trying to preserve the peace in the poorhouse that is Egypt; an impressive strike wave which had already started before Mubarak's ouster and intensified after would not stop. Secondly, the power-thirsty Muslim Brothers, themselves, had already undermined their arrangement with the armed forces. The best example of this was their announcement they would develop the Suez Canal with help from Qatari investors and without the military's involvement: “This would have broken the army’s grip on the crown jewel of its economic expansion project, and entailed a substantial shift in economic power towards the Brotherhood, perhaps giving it the ability to get out of the bind of political deal-making with the army. No doubt this episode substantially contributed to the SCAF’s enthusiasm in removing Morsi from power, and its decision to subsequently crush the organisation entirely as a troublesome rival.”1
The question of what role the struggle for control over and between various institutions played, is not yet completely settled. For example, in the constitution the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists railroaded in 2012, the religious Azhar University, until then an institution within the framework of state Islam, was given the power to oversee the legislative process. It is not completely clear to what extent the Islamists contributed to the disastrous situation of women. It is also not settled why the struggle against this sitution evoked so little response in the mass demonstrations that took place. The second interviewee is certainly correct in stating that the situation of women has been terrible, no matter what regime is in power. However, the MB-led government went even further by indignantly refusing to sign a UN declaration on the elimination of violence against women in the March of 2013, claiming this declaration "would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moralspecificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies". To what extent a move like this impacts everyday life is not entirely clear.
Ever since the coup in the summer of 2013, however, the armed forces have ruled the country with a level of repression Egypt hadn't seen in a long time – not even under the Islamists. Alleged and actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood were massacred and locked up in prisons by the thousands, but more sympathetic groups have also felt the brute force of the security forces. Activists were sentenced to fifteen years in prison merely for taking part in a demonstration. All dissent is to be silenced. On top of that, while the military is suppressing its Islamist rivals, it is also trying to appear “more Islamic than the Islamists”, as an Egyption human rights activist put it, in order to serve prejudices; she was referring to an incident last December in which police, under the eyes of the media, led a couple of dozen naked men accused of being gay out of a hamam.2
Al-Sisi ruling the country directly as president probably wasn't the military's first choice, as it has generally preferred to conduct its business without disruption in the background. Its violent excesses likely express its fear, which is not unfounded, of turmoil. After declining briefly after the coup, strikes have started to gain momentum in 2014 and forced the resignation of the civilian cabinet in February. Apparently, the new regime is augmenting its brute force with a pro-worker rhetoric reminiscent of the Nasser era in order to restore order. It is questionable, however, how much it can really do after the end of economic statism; it has not found a way around cuts to subsidies in the spirit of austerity, thereby stoking the impoverished masses' discontent.
Although the ongoing strikes have been and will in all likelihood continue to be rulers' nightmares, they don't exactly nourish hopes of revolution. As both interviews indicate, strikes throughout this period have mostly taken place isolated from events on the streets. Despite their importance in 2011, they don't appear to offer a point of reference for the recurring demonstrations and street battles; conversely, the movements on the streets haven't had much significance for strikes. This is not because there is a middle class democratic movement on the one hand and a proletarian strike movement on the other. Whatever the elastic term “middle class” may signify, the majority of those who took to the streets in 2011 and since also have little to their name but their labor power. They don't, however, sell that labor power in forms of employment that make strikes and unions possible. This “informal proletariat” (Mike Davis) is mostly struggling against an oppressive order that shows it just how marginal it is with police violence. It unites periodically for riots without developing any permanent organizational structures or political platforms.
From its onset, the unrest in Egypt had some post-political features. They were confusing and confused. These were struggles about bread and freedom, but no political force was able to translate them into a realistic political program. Since 2011, broad parts of the general population have repeatedly intervened in the country's goings-on. On the one hand, this interference was decisive; on the other, it never went beyond insisting that things somehow change, which in the end resulted in the military, then the Islamists, and then the military again taking over power. Radicals may not care about this, in that they have no expectations of left-wing reform parties or of supposedly revolutionary vanguard parties. As the comrade from Cairo said in the second interview: “I have never gone to the streets in order to change a government”.
Thus, Egypt is part of a larger trend of unrest that cannot express a positive vision and therefore fizzles out at first. Many radicals think the confusion of our times is “exciting” or whatever, which it very well may be. But those who are not content with rejoicing in the unpredictability of revolt may be forced to think about the problem that the weaknesses of reformism and the end of state socialism have in no way cleared the path for a real break with the status quo. The endless riots of the past years have given the idea of such a break a more definite shape. However, the power to topple rulers went hand in hand with a complete powerlessness when it came to creating new social relations. That's not enough. Fortunately, you don't have to be a Leninist to not expect spontaneity to deliver any miracles.
Friends of the Classless Society, January 2015
- 1. L.S., Continuing Business by Other Means: Egypt’s Military Economy (May 2014). We recommend this account of the economic role of the Egyptian armed forces and its significance for developments there.
- 2. Cf. “Der größte Sündenpfuhl für Gruppenperversion”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.13.2014.