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Totalitarian Democracy

[The Arabic reads: [The Arabic reads: "The people do NOT overthrow the regime". Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim]

The cover of the current issue of Time Magazine calls Egyptians “the world’s best protestors” and “the world’s worst democrats.” The startling ignorance of this cover highlights a fundamental question that — in the current climate of frenzied analyses of Egypt — is not being asked:

Is it more democratic to elect a dictator, or to topple one?

Democracy alone was never a fundamental demand of the Egyptian revolution. Bread, freedom and social justice: These are the demands of the revolution. Freedom. Not representative democracy. Freedom. Hundreds were killed for freedom, not for a ballot slip. Morsi was elected because he was the lesser of two evils. He stood in Tahrir Square and promised he could deliver the goals of the revolution. And he imprisoned and raped and tortured and killed his citizens like every government before him. And now he has fallen.

Democracy — which at the very least would mean an independent judiciary, citizens’ rights, freedom of the press and transparent elections — will not be won in Egypt through elections, because there is a historical and geographical context that determines what is and is not possible through the ballot box alone.

The current state structure within which he country operates is based on layers of colonial and military history, each layer building on the last to obscure the state and place it above — and separate from — the people.

Mehmed Ali ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1841, introducing private land ownership, dividing up agricultural territory into private estates. He created the state’s bureaucracy and the first modern army in the region. This became the cornerstone of Egyptian nationalism, the expression of which reached its visual apex last week when army helicopters showered Tahrir with Egyptian flags.

The French destroyed, redesigned and rebuilt villages to create, codify and entrench class strata.

The British centralized gubernatorial and mayoral appointments under the Ministry of the Interior.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers created a massive security apparatus to watch over their “revolution from above,” and placed generals in key state positions. President Anwar Sadat’s rapid and unregulated infitah (opening) opened up the country to outside investment, creating a new class of business elites who matured comfortably into the crony capitalists of the Mubarak years.

President Hosni Mubarak massively expanded the police state, removing direct power from the Armed Forces but pacifying ranking generals with a system of “loyalty allowances,” offering them retirement possibilities in lucrative state positions — such as gubernatorial appointments — in return for their allegiance.

And so the circle closes. By 2011, two hundred years of successive policies designed to centralize and concentrate power and suppress political possibility had evolved into an impenetrable, unaccountable and unchallengeable cycle of money and influence circulating between a handful of key institutions, soldiers and the businessmen closest to the ruling family.

How could democracy — when proposed by this ancient authoritarian machine of the deep state — arrive neatly with the ballot boxes nine months after Mubarak’s fall?

Beyond the deep state stands the international regime. Just as Egypt’s economic, military and social structures were forged by colonial schema of oppression, so its position within the “international community” of wealthy countries and corporations is confined to one of neo-colonial subjugation and collusion.

Three brief examples:

One: As a reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, Egypt became the second largest beneficiary of US military aid in the world. Vast sums poured into the military’s budget in exchange for peace with Israel, the repression of the Palestinians and keeping the Suez Canal open for business.

In 2005, the Mubarak government began selling natural gas to Israel, supplying it with thirty percent of its total fuel needs at below market rates. This continued until last year, when the deal was suspended under intense popular pressure.

In 2012, Egypt began importing natural gas for the first time to meet a rising domestic demand. That demand is so heavily subsidized that it consumes twenty-five percent of the national budget. But ninety-three percent of it is consumed by the richest fifth of the population. So the state is currently spending more than it does on health and education combined on subsidizing the rich’s fuel. And has racked up five billion US dollars in debt to at least forty-two different oil and gas companies, and up to fifteen billion US dollars to banks and other ministries in the process.

So Egypt is now out of cash for imports, and domestic alternatives are needed. Enter Dana Gas, a UAE company now fracking in the Nile Valley, a possible side effect of which could be the poisoning of the river. Ninety-eight percent of Egyptians live alongside the Nile and depend on its water, which is already so polluted that the rich now drink bottled water produced by Coca Cola (Dasani), Pepsi (Aquafina) or the army (Safi), allowing the government to ignore the issue.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia presses ahead with its Renaissance Dam project, whose as yet unknown effects on her upstream neighbors have been the source of such a hysterical public outcry that Ethiopia—not Israel—became Egypt’s main security concern in Morsi’s final, United States-approved months in office.

Two: Sinai. A mountainous peninsula that lies between the two key US-Egyptian “security concerns”: the Suez Canal and the Gaza Strip.The Israelis developed its coastline for tourism when they occupied it in 1967. In 1982, the military occupation was handed over to the Egyptians, who opened the door to international investment but marginalized the indigenous Bedouins, denying them land rights even as they watched foreign companies build towns and luxury hotel complexes for European tourists.

The southern coastline and historical sites are now key drivers of tourism, but only a fraction of the money they bring in goes back into either the community or the state, with everything up to and including airport licenses dominated by foreign companies. Industrial development plans fail because they gloss over the Bedouin’s grievances and continue to pursue the state’s preferred military-capitalist model.[5] “Security” will never be achievable as long as the siege of Gaza continues, the tunnel economy flourishes and the gas pipeline to Israel exists.

But to address any of these issues would mean the end of American military aid. And from this catch-twenty-two a new idea has emerged, whose idiocy is only matched by its four billion US dollar price tag: To build a bridge to Saudi Arabia. To make an environmentally disastrous land-crossing between the most volatile region of the most populous country in the Arab world and the petroleum-fuelled evangelical heartland of extremist Wahhabi ideology.

Three: Wheat. Egypt is blessed with fertile land, regular irrigation water and limitless sun. Until the end of the Ottoman era, Egypt was a net exporter of food and textiles. Mehmed Ali divided the territory into private landholdings before the British colonists shifted crop production towards cotton to feed the Manchester mills driving their industrial revolution. By 1914 cotton accounted for ninety-two percent of the total value of Egyptian exports. Nasser’s attempts at land reform were curtailed by Sadat, and with the capitalist boom of the 1970s the wealthier classes began eating more meat, domestic crops were diverted to feed livestock and an import-dependency on USAID began to “feed the poor,” whose bread was now being eaten by the rich’s cows.

And so, today, Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat and lives permanently on the edge of a food crisis. To try and stave off a repeat of the 1977 bread riots, the state underwrites a vast, inefficient and corrupt subsidy system. It also continues to divert domestic production away from staple foods towards export crops, in order to produce hard currency to service interest payments on international loans, which were taken out to buy grain in the first place. And if Egypt’s 38.8 billion US dollar debt wasn’t burdensome enough, successive post-revolution governments continue to hold talks with the IMF in the hope of securing a 4.8 billion US dollar loan, whose approval would require further “structural adjustments” towards export crops, such as cut flowers, for European markets. And so the circle closes.

The elite domestic and international regimes have created a matrix of corruption, control and inequality that cuts through every aspect of Egyptian life. The ballot box would not have given any new president the authority or the power to seriously tackle any one of these issues. 

Egypt had elections, but nothing else. Elections can be a tool — one of the tools through which social change can be attempted. They can also be a very strong sedative. The decrease in voter turnout in Egypt from fifty-three percent for the parliamentary elections in November 2011 to thirty-three percent for the constitutional referendum in November 2012 shows that the form of democracy required is much more radical than what’s on offer.

The spreading of democracy by the United States and her allies has always been inextricably bound up with the liberalization of markets. Democracy, for recipients of US attention in the global south, means free market capitalism. The concepts are interchangeable, as they were when the British were blessing the world with “civilization.”

Egyptians have spent the last ten years watching democracy gloriously spreading over the mountains of Afghanistan and into the oil wells of Iraq. And when the Obama administration had ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood would keep the country open for business and not make any moves against Israel, the ballot box acquired its sanctimonious glow here, too.

So, Time Magazine, and all you other fading giants of yesterday’s media, being a “democrat” was never a choice for Egyptians. You do not just wake up and choose whether or not you live in a democracy.

Morsi’s winning of the presidential election gave him a degree of legitimacy. But legitimacy without consent is meaningless, and the Muslim Brotherhood did such a disastrous job of governing that consent was lost within a year. Morsi made specific electoral promises—not just to the electorate, but to most formal revolutionary and secular groups—to build a coalition government led by a non-partisan figure, to write a consensus-based constitution and to make legislative reforms of the state. Then his cabinet of choice, which was mostly made up of weak, Mubarak-era bureaucrats and Brotherhood members, refused to cooperate with civil society on labor issues, police reform, anti-torture work, the economy or energy—all issues on which human rights groups, activists and development NGOs offered their services and expertise—and were shunned.

So when, after a year, people felt that their lives were continuing to worsen, Egyptians took to the streets in the millions—a revolutionary act that also, since it keeps coming up, happened to be profoundly democratic. The Tamarod (Rebel) movement was, in essence, a recall vote — something that might have been worked into the new constitution if Egyptians had been truly involved in the writing of it.   

As the great Howard Zinn wrote, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” The whole world is lecturing Egypt about democracy; but commentators should realize that by narrowing the idea to fit their preferred analysis, they are undermining their own future freedoms.

Bread, freedom, social justice. It is possible. The solution, though, is not simply representative democracy. Egypt requires, at the very least, a radical overhaul of the state, the dismantling of the military’s supra-state, the democratization and decentralization of local politics, extensive land reforms, cooperative partnerships with neighboring countries, a progressive policy on Israel and a completely new set of international political and business relationships, beginning with cancelling the debt accrued dishonestly by dictators.

These goals will never be achieved by any of the corrupt and compromised elite currently playing politics at the national level. These goals cannot be achieved in isolation—the domestic and international regime are so intertwined that everything has to be fought at once. The Egyptian revolution must couple with the revolutions that began across the world in 2011, and are still kicking and fighting today. The road ahead is long and hard. The revolution continues.  

[A version of this piece appeared on Mada Masr. An edited, shorter, version of this piece first appeared in the Guardian on 17 July 2013.] 

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