“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
As the military in Egypt consolidates its putsch against the leadership and political structures of the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be obvious that the initial narrative rationalizing intervention by the military as a necessary corrective to a “revolutionary process” has lost all credibility. Yet many liberals and radicals appear united in a fanciful reading of the events in Egypt that not only legitimizes the coup but characterizes the collection of small-minded state-capitalists thugs who make up the top officer corps of the military as part of the people and the revolutionary process.
From bourgeois intellectual hacks like Isabel Coleman to venerable Marxist materialists like Samir Amin, who implied that the Egyptian army was a neutral class force, the emotional response to seeing hundreds of thousands of people on the streets seems to have created a case of temporary insanity, or as Frantz Fanon refers to it as – cognitive dissonance. This can be the only explanation for the theoretical and rhetorical acrobatics many are engaged in to reconcile their beliefs in democratic rights and revolutionary transformation with what is occurring right before their eyes in Egypt.
A revolution in name only
The popular use and acceptance of the term revolution to describe the events in Egypt over the last two years demonstrates the effectiveness of global liberal discourse to “de-radicalize,” with the collusion of some radicals, even the term “revolution.”
Eschewing the romanticism associated with revolution and the sentimentality connected to seeing the “masses in motion,” it has to be concluded that between February 2011, when Mubarak was ousted, and July 3, 2013, when the military officially reassumed power, there was no revolutionary process at all, in the sense that there was no transfer of power away from the class forces that dominated Egyptian society. No restructuring of the state; no new democratic institutions and structures created to represent the will and interests of the new progressive social bloc of students, workers, farmers, women’s organizations etc.; and no deep social transformation. In fact, the rapes and sexual assaults that occurred during the recent mobilizations were a graphic reminder that sexist and patriarchal ideas still ruled, untouched by this so-called revolutionary process.
A revolutionary process is a process by which structures of power are created by a broad mass of people that allow them to eventually transform every aspect of their society — from the structure and role of the State and the organization of the economy to inter-personal relations — all with a view to eliminating all forms of oppression. There were some important organizational advances made by some elements of the labor movement in Egypt, including the creation of independent trade unions. However, the organizational imperative for revolutionary change that requires the building of popular structures to sustain mass struggle and represent dual power, was not as strong as it should have been in Egypt.
Early 2011 in Egypt saw mass agitation for social change and a mass rebellion against a dictatorship that galvanized previously disparate social forces and classes — Westernized secular liberals, labor rights activists, radical students, women’s rights activists and Islamic fundamentalists — into one oppositional social bloc. The initial demand was for the end of the Mubarak dictatorship and the creation of a democratic system that respected democratic rights — the essential component of an authentic national democratic revolutionary process. However, the maturation of this process was arrested due to three factors: (i) the seizure of power by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) on February 11, (ii) the channeling of mass dissent primarily into the electoral process, and (iii) the failure of the oppositional forces to organize sustainable mass structures to safeguard and consolidate the developing revolutionary situation.
The concern with characterizing the nature of mass struggle in Egypt and in Tunisia that eventually was branded as the “Arab spring,” is not driven by a desire for some kind of neat, categorical purity that abstracts complex social phenomenon from its historical context. But instead the concern is the need to differentiate politically and programmatically the specific political challenges and tasks between an insurrectionary phase of struggle and one that has entered a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary phase.
This is important because the liberal appropriation of the term “revolution” to describe everything from the events in Libya and Syria to the Green movement in Iran not only distorts social reality but also advances a dangerous narrative. That narrative suggests that revolutionary change takes place as a result of spectacle. It devalues organizing and building structures from the bottom up as unnecessary because it is the theater that is important; the episodic show; the display that refutes Gil Scott Heron’s admonition that “the revolution will not be televised!”
The perverted logic of this approach is reflected in both the failure of the opposition to organize itself beyond the spontaneous mobilizations of 2011 and the knowledge of Morsi’s opponents, the Tamarod — thanks to signals from their patrons in the U.S. — that if they demonstrated significant street opposition to President Morsi the U.S. would have the cover to support intervention by the military.
The military’s pre-emptive strike against revolution
To have a clearer view of the current situation in Egypt, we must debunk the nonsensical, a-historical gibberish that suggests that the Egyptian military is a neutral, grand mediator of contending social and political forces, and stepped into the political scene in January 2011 and again July 2nd as a national patriotic force allied with the interests of the “people.”
The reality is that what we have witnessed in Egypt is a lateral transfer of power, in class terms, from the civilians in the Mubarak government, representing capitalist interests tied to the State, to the military, which has similar economic interests, with their enterprises and retired officer corps populating companies connected to the State sector. In fact, under President Morsi, the military never really went away. It maintained an independent space in the Egyptian state and economy. Critical ministerial positions in the Morsi cabinet, such as the Interior Ministry, Defense and Suez Canal Authority, were given to individuals associated with the Mubarak regime that were allied with the military. And the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, populated by Mubarak-era appointees, was the main instrument used by the military to limit and control any efforts to restructure the state or expand Morsi’s power.
For U.S. policy-makers, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government were never seen as an alternative to Hosni Mubarak. Despite the repression meted out to members of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Mubarak regime, it was well understood that the Brotherhood was part of the Egyptian economic elite and open to doing business with the West. Therefore, Morsi was seen as an acceptable and safe civilian face to replace Mubarak while the U.S. continued its influence behind the scenes through the military.
Both the U.S. government and the Egyptian military had objective interests in making sure that the power of the Morsi Presidency remained more symbolic than real. The military, working through the Constitutional Court and the bureaucracy, made sure that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood only had nominal control of the State. Morsi did not control the intelligence or security apparatus, the police, the diplomatic corps, or the bureaucracy, which was still staffed with Mubarak holdovers.
In fact, one of the major sources of tension between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was the threat — and real moves — made by the Morsi government to use their nominal state power to curtail the economic activity of the military, which holds interests controlling anything from 15 to 40 percent of the economy, in favor of the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, representing sectors of the competitive capitalist class.
One way of looking at the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood is that it was nothing more than a militarized solution to an intra-bourgeois class struggle within the context of Egyptian society, and had nothing to do with the interests of the fragmented and institutionally-weak opposition.
So the idea that the military, as a neutral force, allied itself with “the people” and only stepped in to resolve a political crisis is nothing more than a petit-bourgeois fantasy.
The class-based, social and economic interests of the military mean that it will oppose any fundamental transformation of the Egyptian economy and society, the ostensible aim of the “revolution.” Significantly, this means that the power of the military is going to have to be broken if there is to be any prospect of revolutionary change in Egypt.
A National Democratic Revolution: One step forward, three steps back
This analysis, however, should not be read to suggest that the people were just bit-players in a drama directed by powers they had no control over. The mass rebellion in Egypt created a crisis of governance for the corrupt elite that were in power and their U.S. patron. The demand for the end of the dictatorship was an awesome demonstration of people-power that created the potential for revolutionary change. The problem was that the dictatorship had severely undermined the ability of alternative popular forces to develop and acquire the political experience and institutional foundations that would have positioned them to better push for progressive change and curtail the power of the military. Unfortunately for Egypt, the force that had the longest experience in political opposition and organizational development was the Muslim Brotherhood.
The call by a sector of the “people” for the Morsi government to step down was a legitimate demand that expressed the position of a portion of the population that was dissatisfied with the policies and direction of the country. Yet, when the Egyptian military — a military that has not demonstrated any propensity for supporting democratic reforms — intimated that it would step in, the mass position should have been “no to military intervention, change only by democratic means” — a position that a more mature and authentically independent movement might have assumed if it was not being manipulated by powerful elite forces internally and externally.
It was wishful thinking that bordered on the psychotic for liberal and radical forces in the country and their allies outside to believe that a democratic process could be developed that reflected the interests of the broad sectors of Egyptian society while disenfranchising the Muslim Brotherhood, a social force that many conservatively suggest still commands the support of at least a third of the Egyptian population, and is the largest political organization in the country. Liberals and some radicals that supported the coup did not understand that the construction of the “people” is a social/historical process that requires both struggle and engagement. Not understanding this basic principle has resulted in the killing of the national democratic revolution in its infancy.
The powerful national elites that bankrolled the anti-Morsi campaign and their external allies, including Saudi Arabia and the U.S., have successfully set in motion a counter-revolutionary process that will fragment the opposition and marginalize any radical elements. The Egyptian elite understood much more clearly than the Tamarod or the National Salvation Front that a revolutionary process would entail the development of a political program that has as its objectives the subordination of the military to the people, the public appropriation of state capitalist sector and the rejection of neoliberal capitalist development. Because of that understanding, they moved with textbook precision over the last year and a half to protect their interests.
Sadly, the liberal and radical collusion with the anti-democratic forces of the Egyptian military and economic elite has provided legitimacy for the same retrograde forces that dominated Egyptian society under Mubarak to continue that domination, but this time in the name of “revolution.”