Navigating Egypt’s Revolutionary Crisis*
By Shamus Cooke
As chaos again envelopes Egypt, the revolution is evolving in new directions, along contradictory and confusing channels. It’s tempting to immediately support the “opposition” to the Muslim Brotherhood’s apparent “power grab,” but the situation in Egypt is more complex. The recent events in Egypt are not simply signs of a healthy revolution, they also include immediate dangers.
Making sense out of a constantly changing, frantic revolution involving millions of people involves unpeeling layers of outer turmoil until the inner motives of different interest groups are exposed. At bottom, the groups vying for power have economic interests at stake; asking “who benefits” is still the best way to navigate a revolution.
For example, in Egypt the freshly-formed “opposition” — to the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government — is a motley crew. After the President announced “emergency powers,” an opposition coalition formed, calling itself the “National Salvation Front,” consisting of different groups united with the ultimate aim to remove President Morsi from power (some members of the coalition revealed their actual motives when the President rescinded the emergency powers decree, but they retained their demand for him to immediately step down). Included in this coalition are sincere revolutionary youth, wealthy 1%’ers and western-backed bureaucrats, as well as “socialists”, unions, and even those with deep connections to the former Mubarak dictatorship like Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak.
The only thing that unites this group is their antagonism to the Muslim Brotherhood. But different groups within the opposition have different reasons for hating the Muslim Brotherhood. The revolutionary youth and socialists want a real democracy, both social and political, and correctly view a religious group in power as being inherently anti-democratic, since it automatically minimizes the rights of religious minorities, like the religious states of Saudi Arabia and Israel do.
However, others in the coalition are anti-Muslim Brotherhood for less virtuous reasons. Those who benefited from the former dictatorship simply want to be back in power where they controlled the government, using it as a giant money trough of parasitic corruption.
The other liberal and affluent groups in the opposition — those not connected to the former regime — aspire towards the same government money trough: they were excluded from state power by the Mubarak regime and now the Muslim Brotherhood dominates the state apparatus and all its perks. This exclusion from power is the real basis for many of these groups crying about democracy; they want a democracy with themselves in power.
In Egypt, the economic interests of different groups are consciously hidden behind religion and abstract notions of democracy. The very wealthy and corporations have no problem acting extra religious or especially democratic if it pushes their interests forward.
But to truly wield power during a revolution implies that you express the interests of the millions who crushed the Mubarak dictatorship. And although it’s true that the new opposition has led massive demonstrations in the streets, it’s also true that the Muslim Brotherhood has led much bigger demonstrations, a fact under-reported in the media.
Another ignored fact is that most people believe — including Egyptian opposition groups — that the Muslim Brotherhood will win the upcoming referendum vote, which is why the opposition is trying to prevent the referendum from happening by causing havoc in the streets, instead of waiting for a more democratic vote.
President Morsi has accused the organizers of these protests to be scheming towards a coup, and there’s likely more than a little truth in this (this was in part the reason he gave for granting himself emergency powers).
It’s certain that the former Mubarak officials in the opposition are thinking along these lines. Some have accused the military and police of provoking violence and intentionally not intervening in protests that killed several people and injured hundreds outside the presidential palace. Similar non-interventions during mob violence happened at a massacre at a soccer game where 75 died, and with attacks against Christian churches. The military are regulars at using such social crises to reclaim their powers via martial law and dictatorship. This threat is real and urgent in Egypt.
And although the Muslim Brotherhood has bent backwards trying to please the military, this can change quickly; the military has a weak allegiance to the Brotherhood and a long history of conflict. It would rather have military-associated politicians in power.
This isn’t to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is politically supportable. They’re not. They have been far too friendly to the military and other criminals associated with the former regime. Nor have they done anything to address the economic and social issues that were the real fuel of the revolution. Millions of people participated in the revolution because they wanted to improve their lives. This hasn’t happened. And things are about to get worse under the Muslim Brotherhood government.
For example, the Brotherhood government recently signed off on a loan from the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF), which, as history has repeatedly shown, proves disastrous for the working and poor people of the debtor country by forcing economic policies that favor rich investors at everyone else’s expense.
Moreover, the IMF usually demands privatization of public services that are directed toward helping the poor. One example of a common IMF attack on the public sector is the elimination of government fuel subsides, which lower the price of gasoline and oil used for cooking. This IMF policy has created mini-Arab springs in Jordan and Nigeria; and now Egypt’s IMF loan includes the same attached string. A report on Reuters explains:
If the [Egyptian] government does begin cutting the [fuel] subsidy and publishes a timetable for its eventual removal — probably a minimum IMF demand — then we would expect funds from the IMF and other donor organizations to provide Egypt with breathing space [to fund its government].
At the same time, the IMF loan also helped insure that Egypt’s Mubarak-era miniscule taxes for the wealthy and corporations stay where they are, at 25 percent.
Thus, in one stroke of the pen — signing the IMF debt deal — the Muslim Brotherhood proved in practice that it will continue the economic policies of the wealthy-dominated Mubarak dictatorship.
This economic policy of free-market capitalism of the IMF is agreed to by all of the large anti-Brotherhood “opposition” groups, with the exception of the revolutionary youth and socialist organizations. This is more proof that for many of these groups, the battle for “democracy” is a shallow one, a thin shell of political democracy that doesn’t penetrate into the larger economic sphere. The best expression of this razor-thin democracy is the leader of the opposition coalition, Mohamed ElBaradei, who said that:
“The demands of the revolution were for social justice, freedom and dignity.”
Of course “social justice” is vague enough to be misinterpreted to not include jobs, good wages, adequate social services — the core economic demands of the revolution.
And although the economic voice of the majority of Egyptians is not currently being expressed by any of the main groups vying for power, the demands of working people will inevitably find their way into the larger struggle for power. Voices expressing these demands are already emerging in various parts of the country, where labor and community issues are coming to the forefront. For example, the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions recently included in their demands:
Re-form the Constituent Assembly with at least 50 percent of the members to be workers and peasants
Guarantee trade union freedoms in the Constitution or the law
Issue a new labor law guaranteeing workers’ rights
Speed up the implementation of a law on minimum and maximum wages, and link these to rising prices
Return of all workers to work who have lost their jobs
It has also been reported the important industrial city of Mahalla — known for its tradition of labor struggles — has declared itself “independent” from the government, and will be run by a “revolutionary council,” although details are still scarce.
Ultimately, the voice of the working Egyptians must be expressed if the revolution is to be pushed forward. However, an urgent question must still be answered immediately: Should the main demand of the opposition — for President Morsi to step down — be supported?
It seems that, at this time, the demand is premature, considering that there has been a recent election that overwhelmingly put the Muslim Brotherhood into power, and that even the opposition admits that the Brotherhood is likely to win its nationwide referendum vote (the large pro-government demonstrations seem to confirm this). The demand thus seems strangely at odds with the current political reality, and thus raises suspicions about some of those demanding it, especially the ex-Mubarak lackeys, who are likely using legitimate popular anger for the purpose of coup-making.
The opposition’s shallow version of democracy cannot be won by ignoring President Morsi’s recently won democratic election. The revolutionary youth in the anti-Brotherhood coalition should strive for an independent path for working people, far away from those associated with the last dictatorship and with those trying to tie Egypt’s economy to the short leash of the U.S. corporate-run IMF.