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The Revolution in Permanence

[Egypt's president-elect Mohamed Morsi addresses tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. Photo by Jonathan Rashad.] [Egypt's president-elect Mohamed Morsi addresses tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. Photo by Jonathan Rashad.]

The Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011 may not have gone according to plan – if indeed there ever was a coherent plan. Commentators from across the political spectrum, both inside and outside Egypt, have noted that the aftermath of June’s presidential election may simply confirm a soft military coup rather than a major achievement in democratic liberalization. Egypt’s military, with its powerful corporate hold on up to perhaps as much as one third of the economy, was not to be deleted so easily. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seems to have pulled the strings behind the election, shaping an outcome in which the Egyptian armed forces rule without electoral support, and where a rhetoric of democratic electoral politics masks the persistence of a “deep state” of entrenched military economic interests and likely continued crony capitalism. But before jumping to the conclusion that the revolution has been halted, let us look briefly at just what has unfolded in Egypt and what outcomes may emerge. Put bluntly, is the cup of achievement for political liberalization and democratic deepening half full or half empty?

Cup Half Empty

There has been considerable pessimism in the assessment of Egypt’s transition to a civilian President. Egyptians have been to the polls seven times since January 2011, for a constitutional referendum, elections and runoffs for two chambers of parliament, and twice for the presidential election. The Revolution’s Youth Coalition and labor movements that broke free from the state monopoly of labor representation urged caution about moving quickly to polling after Mubarak’s ouster. They knew that only continued social mobilization and political organizing could prevent the old regime from using its party machine to reinstate cronies and security apparatchiks. However, a valiant attempt to negotiate the emergence of a post-Mubarak political system was lost early.

The SCAF, however, insisted on a speedy move towards parliamentary elections and refused to countenance a transitional committee of independent experts to manage constitutional reform and formulate a more considered political transition and rebuilding. This was the first battle lost after the fall of Mubarak and it was to be followed by a series of despicable maneuverings by the SCAF that revealed how adept the octogenarian Generals were in defending the military’s corporate holdings and the structure of the internal security apparatus. Their strategy had been evident throughout the Mubarak period - to engineer public consensus that authoritarianism and the Generals were Egypt’s remaining last-line of defense that could protect the country’s territorial integrity and deal with (largely manufactured) internal security threats. The SCAF fomented internal violence to justify their strong-arm tactics of summarily beating and imprisoning protesters who wanted to rid the country of military rule and to expand democratic representation. In 2011, as many as 12,000 Egyptians, including hundreds of political activists, faced military courts without basic rights and due process, and as of July 2012, 2,165 civilians remain imprisoned after undergoing military trials. On 9 October 2011 at least twenty-seven demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured in violence outside State TV at Maspero after being attacked by security forces and thugs allegedly hired by internal security. Many, though not all, were Copts calling for justice for the torching down of a Church in Aswan. Forty-one were killed and more than a thousand injured when security forces attacked protesters in nation-wide clashes, dubbed the “Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles,” that took place between 19 and 24 November 2011. As authorities attacked an anti-SCAF sit-in outside the cabinet buildings in the week of 16 December 2011, at least nineteen were killed and 750 injured. Due to clear and possibly deliberate negligence on the part of police forces, seventy-four Ultras Ahlawy soccer fans were killed and a thousand injured at a match in Port Said stadium on 1 February 2012. The Ultras, hardcore supporters from Cairo, had been very influential in orchestrating the defense of the revolution in Tahrir Square during the eighteen-day uprising and had much experience in resisting and protesting against police brutality. The failure to properly police the match at Port Said and to keep rival fans apart (let alone prevent armed individuals from entering the stadium) is said to have been an intentional scheme on the part of security officials to take revenge against their enemies among the Ultras. The security police were said by one perpetrator to have hired six hundred thugs and offered them each LE150.

Many observers interpreted this incident as a manifestation of a consistent post-Mubarak strategy on the part of the SCAF, as well as police officials, aimed at scaring Egyptians into submission by deliberately depriving them of security. One of Egypt’s footballing legends, Mohamed Abu Treika, declared that he “refused to meet Field Marshal [Hussein] Tantawi, because I believe the military council to be an accessory to this crime. I do not understand why they are still so unable to make any decisions to secure the country against thugs”.

Alongside the climate of fear and violence, the SCAF has orchestrated an electoral policy that has led to “pact making” politics. Linkages between the military and many political figures intent on challenging for high office has sucked out from national debate most radical formulations of what a new Egyptian political economy might look like in an era of contested democratic dispensation. Even as the votes were being counted for the Presidential election, the SCAF declared on 17 June an addendum to the 30 March 2011 Constitutional Declaration that gave the Generals more power and tied the hands of the incoming President before he took office. In effect, they wrote an interim constitution. The Generals dissolved the People’s Assembly, the Parliament’s lower house, whilst the ‘political isolation’ law that had prevented politicians belonging to Mubarak’s now-defunct party standing for office was voided. In addition, an executive decree gave military security officials wide-ranging powers to arrest civilians – though the courts have since rescinded this decision. The SCAF gave itself powers to legislate, control state budgets, and veto power over a future President’s ability to declare war. It seemed the “deep state” had consolidated its powerful position just as many Egyptians packed Tahrir Square to celebrate the election of a new President. And this achievement in itself also illustrated a cup half empty.


             [“Don’t be afraid I am your friend,” says the SCAF. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff. Photo from Wikimedia Commons]

The two presidential candidates who contested the runoff election in June were simply unrepresentative of the political sentiments expressed by voters in the first round of polling. The run off candidates received only half the number of eligible votes on a low fifty-one percent turnout. Ahmed Shafiq, the political “remnant” (or feloul) from the old regime, was Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. He received 12.3 million votes. These were mostly from Cairenes, speculatively those nervous of an Islamist victory, and from voters mobilized by the old and now banned National Democratic Party machine in the Delta and the coastal and tourist peripheries. After the declaration of the result, Shafiq departed for the Gulf with his family. This was ostensibly for a vacation, though many believe it was to escape prosecution for allegations of corruption while he was minister for aviation and oversaw the development of Cairo airport. In contrast Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate (not the organization’s first choice, who was barred from standing) won with fifty-two percent of the vote, 13.2 million votes. The outcome of the election led Ahdaf Soueif to declare, “Down with the next Egyptian president,” arguing that the majority of the Egyptian people did not want either of them. And it is easy to see why. In the first round of the presidential election, almost forty percent of voters supported nationalist or leftist candidates that were neither representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood nor the old regime. 

An absence of real choice for the presidency, poor voter turnout and persistent intervention by the SCAF led the former Islamist presidential candidate, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh to say the new president will be largely symbolic, a “ghost without the will or authority of a real president.” The fruits of Egypt’s revolution have been tainted by military skullduggery and class power of the old regime. 

Cup Half Full

Teti and Gervasio have argued convincingly that the Presidential runoff elections were not a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Instead, the electoral process was about what the “junta is willing and capable of doing to avoid becoming increasingly isolated.” This suggests that military power may be contested, and that the military may not be immune from the need to exercise power hegemonically – combining the glove with the fist. It also questions whether the SCAF - or military leadership more broadly defined - is homogenous or if there are fractions within it that might be encouraged to relinquish the military’s economic hold and subject themselves to parliamentary oversight. But this does not suggest that the score card, after a tumultuous eighteen months, has many positives, given the track record of the military and their ability to poison electoral debate with xenophobia, sexism and misogyny and promotion of sectarianism. But the revolution is a process that cannot be reduced to struggles around electoral politics. The slogans of 25 January continue with calls for “bread, freedom and justice,” and these are underlined with continued strikes and fellahin occupations.

Much has been made of the ambivalent political positioning of President Morsi. On 25 June his clearly populist visit to Tahrir Square as President elect, where he effectively swore himself into office before the people, stressed the demands of social justice, reverence for the martyrs of the revolution and the need to focus on national unity. And the following day, in his inaugural speech after he had been officially sworn in - not in the dissolved parliament but by the Supreme Constitutional Court – he said, “Today the Egyptian people have established a new life with real freedom and real democracy.” But later, in a speech at Cairo University, he thanked the Armed Forces and the SCAF for guarding the country’s interests since Mubarak had been thrown from office, pouring cold water on the aspirations revolutionaries may have harbored. Activists protesting against the SCAF were shouted down with the now hollow slogan “the people and the military are one hand.” Later in the day, while visiting the Hikestep military training headquarters on the edge of Cairo, Morsi reiterated his thanks for the military’s key role in the revolution: “You were up to the expectations of the people of Egypt.” But then, directing his comments to Field Marshall Tantawi, Morsi also insisted, “I am now responsible for you – the armed forces - as I am for all Egyptians.”

Morsi may not be such a push-over for the military, although he will need a strong and vibrant social constituency to monitor him. This may also depend upon how much he can assert even a relative independence from the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the economic and political clout of its financiers like Khairat el-Shater. Morsi has continued his calls for unity, and there has been talk that a Copt and a woman may be appointed as Vice Presidents and a broad based cabinet may emerge. Would that make a substantive difference or be merely cosmetic? There are well-founded fears of Morsi’s obligations toward Islamist political trends and more specifically, a deal with the Salafists that a new constitution (when it gets written) must draw more explicitly from Islamic law.  


                                                  [Workers march on May Day 2012. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim]

Regionally Israel has finally congratulated Morsi, having implored the US and EU during the revolution to save their friend Mubarak. The 1979 peace treaty with Tel Aviv does not look under threat. However, Morsi will be under considerable pressure to speak out against illegal Israeli occupations of Palestinian territory and repeated human rights violations. One of the factors that repeatedly angered Egyptians during Mubarak’s regime was the failure to concretely support the Palestinians. The US may have been irritated that Morsi did not take the opportunity of his inaugural to reiterate the importance of Washington’s relationship with Cairo. Yet many are aware that the annual $1.3 billion US military assistance to Egypt constitutes significant leverage. It may keep SCAF in line, but also limit foreign policy posturing or challenges to US geostrategic reach in the region. Morsi is under heavy pressure from SCAF to reserve the powerful Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Internal Security to military approved personnel.

There is additional international pressure on Morsi. The World Bank has reaffirmed support for Egypt during its “Historic Transition” Apparently the World Bank spent “the last year listening to a wide range of voices” in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, and the result is the claimed alignment of Bank activities with “the aspirations expressed during the revolution… to help Egypt face the dual challenge of implementing much-needed government reforms while meeting the urgent need for more economic opportunities” (World Bank 2012). This translates into the World Bank wanting to help Egypt, “restore a sound and healthy macroeconomic framework … [and] in defining and launching reforms to enhance the transparency of all government economic operations.” The Bank does pay lip-service to the need to “foster inclusion,” reduce regional disparities and create jobs through investment in labor intensive projects – though this strategy is to be funded only by a meager US $200 million. The Bank ignores the lessons to be learnt from the macroeconomic strategy of the high growth Mubarak years, when Egyptian wealth grew but the majority of Egyptians remained desperately poor – and which arguably created the conditions for the January 25 revolution. Egypt under Mubarak had some stunning economic growth figures. Real GDP growth since 2004 had always been above four percent and often above six percent. Average real per capita GDP increased from US$879 in 1980 to US$1614 in 2004) - equivalent to three percent per capita increase - a figure all developing countries would be happy with. Yet the benefits of growth were distributed very unevenly and poverty in Egypt worsened, especially after the more aggressive neo-liberal reforms associated with Ahmed Nazif’s 2004 government. And there is little indication that World Bank orthodoxy and meddling will diminish Egypt’s economic dependency

The Egyptian economy remains far too dependent upon rent from the Suez Canal, labor migration – in decline since the war in Libya and Iraq - and oil and gas. However, the region’s most populous country with eighty-one million people also offers the possibility of enormous effective demand, if only the workers and farmers who produce the country’s wealth could afford to purchase. Morsi’s biggest challenge, or rather the biggest challenge for Egyptians who want to promote a revolutionary agenda of equality with democratic governance, is to develop an economic strategy of social justice. That can only be constructed on asset redistribution, increased use of local savings (and therefore the need to block capital flight) and expansion of regional economic links. Land reform will also need an urgent agenda for action, with a reversal of the process of privatization that Mubarak accelerated with Law ninety-six of 1992 that removed farmer rights to land in perpetuity. These policies will need distance from the World Bank, not closer proximity to its destructive and discredited neo-liberal policy of trickle-down economics. Arguably one of the reasons why the SCAF were prepared to abandon Mubarak was because the partial (and crony) economic liberalization driven by his son Gamal threatened their corporate-military hold on Egypt’s economy. US connivance in Gamal’s succession would have opened up the Egyptian economy to international competition, and sat uneasily with the Generals who were already concerned at the impact of increased incorporation into global capital.

Morsi has made a limited start. He announced in early July that there would be moderate public sector wage increases, but the big battles, declared off limits by the SCAF, would involve breaking up the concentration of wealth in the military-led economy and shaping investment in a private sector that is not based on accumulation by dispossession. The military’s economic hold and their exploitation of conscript labor will be resisted, though the challenge may come from workers and farmers. Just five days into the revolution on 30 January, the workers who formed the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions proclaimed that, “The Factories and the Square are One” and worker protests for improved labor rights have continued to the present. Labor was previously organized by the corporate state, but now the pressure is on for the full recognition of independent trade unions and an end to the criminalization of strikes and protests. Conversely it is likely that the broader public will be encouraged by security to be intolerant of persistent “disruptive’ behavior.” And the pressure for liberalizing will continue as unemployment remains high, losses of tourist revenue pile up and there is now at least a $22.5 billion deficit. Europe’s capitalist crisis does not help, as it is market for thirty-six percent of Egypt’s exports, though Egypt’s foreign debt remains relatively low at $20 billion. 

Egypt’s revolution has not ground to a halt. The twenty years of struggle to topple Mubarak has not suddenly evaporated and perhaps the electoral farce that has led to an Islamist parliament, disbanded by the SCAF, and Morsi’s success just confirms Žižek’s dictum that “the first choice has to be the wrong choice.” In other words, “the wrong choice creates conditions for the right choice.” The irony of Islamists defending the offices of state for the SCAF is not lost on Egyptians. And it is a paradox that the Muslim Brotherhood has been the most successful in social mobilization at the local level around the mosque and in communities. Notable rifts are opening up between youth and elders amongst the Islamists, with the elders often now weary of political mobilization that may backfire on leaders who are economically conservative. The Muslim Brotherhood began courting international businessmen in the summer of 2011 and its economic program called al-Nahda (The Renaissance) promotes pragmatism and economic growth, including the need for close negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. As one of its financiers, Khairat al-Shater has noted, “The Egyptian economy must rely to a very, very large degree on the private sector. The priority is for Egyptian investors, then Arab then foreign.” It is likely Morsi will be happy to deal with the agents of private and international capital, but this may not always be sustainable politically. The greatest strength of the revolution was its grounding in years of industrial unrest, widespread and successful new trade union struggles and mobilizations. These will not go away and they provide a tremendous opportunity for a new politics, one that was then foregrounded in the post-2000 increased militancy in Cairo and elsewhere to topple authoritarianism. As Karl Marx wrote so famously in his 1850 address to the Central Committee to the Communist League, “While the democratic petty bourgeoisie wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power, ...Their battle cry must be: “The Revolution in Permanence.’’

[This essay is part of an editorial that is in a forthcoming issue of The Review of African Political Economy, 133, September 2012.]

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1 comment for "The Revolution in Permanence"


The central issue is that imposing religious doctrine on others needs to be recognized globally as an immoral act.

Gosto Tothiwim wrote on July 22, 2012 at 04:46 AM

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