Power grab by Egypt’s military

February 17, 2011

Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and a blogger at Lenin's Tomb, analyzes the maneuvers of the Egyptian military following Mubarak's downfall.

EGYPT'S REVOLUTIONARIES demanded Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, and insisted that Omar Suleiman should not be put in charge. They have won that. They demanded that the National Democratic Party-dominated parliament be disbanded in the interim before elections, and the constitution suspended. They have won that.

But they also demanded that between now and elections, there should be a collective, civilian governing council, that the emergency law should be terminated, that unions and parties should have the right to form without the permission of the state. They haven't won that.

The army has instead taken control, is attempting to dismantle the democracy village in Tahrir Square, and has been arresting activists. This does not mean that the army is going to get its way over the future of Egypt, or even that its hesitant, faltering efforts--and they did falter--represent anything but a tentative foot in the water, an attempt to see if something like order can be restored. In fact, the army's premature provocation resulted in thousands of people pouring back into the square, some rough confrontations and eventually groups of army and police standing around looking perplexed. Some police even came to the square pleading to be accepted as comrades of the revolution.

A child holds a sign saying "Egypt is Free" while sitting on a tank parked in Tahrir Square
A child holds a sign saying "Egypt is Free" while sitting on a tank parked in Tahrir Square (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

The army will have to concede some form of representative electoral system, with some basic political freedoms. The state will be weakened in its repressive capacity, and the government will be strengthened in its representative capacity. But the precise balance of forces in the new polity has still to be decided, and in particular, the army's central role has to be negotiated (and struggled against). Everything the army does, therefore--whether they decide to keep the NDP men in place or throw them aside, for example--has to be read in terms of their determination to remain in charge.

The army's maneuvering now is presumably aimed at breaking up the remarkably broad coalition that was first assembled in 2006. This has included, of course, the Muslim Brothers, the Nasserist "Karama" party, the Labour Party (which is Islamist), the Tagammu Party (leftist), the Revolutionary Socialists (self-explanatory), Kefaya (an alliance which includes many of the above elements), the Ghad Party (a liberal offshoot of the Wafdists, which was the first party to be approached by Mubarak for negotiations) and Mohammed ElBaradei's National Alliance for Change.

It has to be said that the alliance might have been quite difficult to maintain if the left had taken the sectarian attitude of some of the older layers of Marxists, who basically maintained that the Muslim Brothers were a tool of the capitalist class, simply an ally of neoliberalism and imperialism and so on. The Revolutionary Socialists played a key role in overcoming that.

Samir Najib, working in the Center for Socialist Studies, argued that it was vital to understand that the Muslim Brothers as in part a movement of the oppressed, involving many rank-and-file activists who came from poor and working class backgrounds. Some of them had been on the left, and been alienated from the left because of their experiences under Nasser and because of the way the poor bore the brunt of the crisis that marked the latter years of the Nasser regime. He argued that socialists should act independently of the Islamists, but not dismissively of them. They should defend them when they were opposed to the state on issues such as the emergency laws or the independence of the judiciary, and should be prepared to work with them on democratic demands.

Such was an important argument in preparing the socialist left to be directly involved in, rather than secluded from, the mass movements that have precipitated Mubarak's downfall. The subsequent alliance also meant that the Muslim Brothers were more sensitive to criticism, as when they were forced to recant on their "Islam is the solution" slogan in 2005, which Christians and socialists argued was sectarian.

THE ARMY'S strategy of forcing a transition managed by the armed forces themselves is partly possible because both Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brothers appear to have supported an army takeover to avert an all-out social explosion. One expects that, though they were the slowest to support the recent revolution, they will be the first to be consulted by the armed forces.

Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brothers were effectively coopted, operating as a loyal opposition. There were and remain tensions in the organization between the businessmen and professionals who dominate the leadership and the poorer base, with more radical layers wanting to take a more uncompromising stance, and these started to come to the fore in the context of the Second Intifada. This building pressure contributed to the decision by the Muslim Brothers to form an alliance with left-wing and secular forces to depose Mubarak back in 2006.

So it would be mistaken to assume that the rank and file of the Brothers will necessarily accept whatever carve-up the leadership opts for. Similarly, while many of the leading middle-class activists are declaring the revolution to be over, effectively throwing in the towel before they've even secured the minimal political and democratic rights that they are in it for, there is likely to be a mass of middle-class radicals who will continue to want to fight. I expect they'll be among the thousands of people who remained in Tahrir Square.

Internationally, the armed forces seem determined to hold on to Egypt's current role. The indications so far are that the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, which underpins the Palestinians' miserable plight and Egypt's participation in the siege of Gaza, is to be maintained. This is purchased with $1.5 billion a year in aid, plus training, but it's also part of a global orientation of power predicated on U.S.-led neoliberalism.

Again, the army's task is made slightly easier here, because ElBaradei supports the peace treaty. The Muslim Brothers do not, but they are highly unlikely to push for its abrogation. Unless an alternative orientation for capital accumulation emerges, the Egyptian ruling class will likely continue to seek a profitable alliance with the U.S. Only the continuation of the popular movements can force an alternative path.

It seems clear enough that the revolution has further convulsions to go. It seems equally clear that the alliance which led to this revolution is going to be reconfigured. Juan Cole has long argued that this revolution was centrally based on the labor movement, the alliance of blue- and white-collar workers that first emerged in 2006. This has united textile workers with tax collectors.

But the movement has also been characterized by a fairly broad alliance between the most militant sections of the working class, and the liberal and radical sections of the middle class--the latter including lawyers, doctors, probably a lot of small businessmen not integrated into the regime and so on. The focus in the Anglophone media on the Twitterati, may have overstated the relevance of the middle class, but they did not fabricate their role. In the current situation, it is often the small businessmen and middle-class professionals (like the Google marketing head Wael Ghonim, currently in a meeting with the higher council of the armed forces) who are in a hurry to call an end to hostilities. They want to get back to earning money.

The accent is shifting far more clearly to the organized working class. Perhaps more serious than today's arrests, then, is the attempted banning of labor activism. This is where a new front of struggle is going to be opened up.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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