Egypt: the Clash of Two Spirits

Posted February 14, 2011

The Mubarak regime—sans the former President himself—has entered into its “Greatest Hits” phase, offering up figures who have been a dominant fixture in elite politics since Hosni Mubarak’s ascendancy to the Presidency three decades ago, albeit repackaged and remastered with minor concessions to the revolutionary movement that is rocking not only Egypt, but the entire region with its new style of Arab nationalism.

This spirit of 2011 represents an Arab nationalism from below, built on the backs of popular struggle via neighborhood defense committees, independent labor organization and mass coordination via social networking sites and word of mouth. It stands to repudiate the models of the opposition parties, whether the Wafd, Nasserists, or the Muslim Brotherhood.

It stands in sharp contrast to the elite model of Arab nationalism, what I will call the spirit of 1952, for lack of a better phrase. The spirit of 1952 is a product of the social upheavals that brought the military into power and established it as the defining institution of Egyptian society—the defining institution of the largest Arab state, the Arab state with the largest base of industrial production (and hence working-class). It is not for nothing that in many parts of the region—though this has gone out of style in the Mubarak years—Egypt is known as umm al-Arab: mother of the Arabs.

The Spirit of 1952

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is counting on the spirit of 1952 in order to establish itself in the chaotic turmoil of Egypt’s present political and social crisis. In 1952, the Free Officers group took advantage of the unfolding social crisis sweeping the nation following the cataclysmic failures of the 1948 conflict with Israel after the Nakhba (the “catastrophe” of mass European Jewish cleansing of the Arab population from most of historic Palestine). The contending forces of the Egyptian opposition parties (dominated by the Wafd, a coalition of nationalists opposed to Britain’s de facto domination of the country as well as the Muslim Brotherhood), the British (especially via their military presence and economic domination) and King Farouk could not stand before the wave of Arab nationalism unleashed in short order by the Free Officers.

In a matter of merely 4 years, the new regime—dedicated to an elite policy of a society managed from above—would break the back of the pro-British aristocracy by nationalizing large swaths of their land, beginning a stunning policy of industrialization symbolized by the construction of the monumental Aswan High Dam, challenge Western imperial rule over the region by refusing to join the Baghdad Pact (one of the many clones of NATO that dotted the landscape of the 1950s) and taking arms from the USSR, retaking the Suez Canal (constructed by Egypt in 1869 but taken by Western capitalists via crude debt machinations shortly thereafter) and finally providing a charismatic leadership—in the form of Nasser—for the aspirations of Arab nationalism across the Middle East.

The spirit of 1952 can be described as a broad Arab nationalism whose repudiation of Western colonialism emanated from the heart of Egypt, facilitated by Egypt’s long string of independent development struggles which emerged from the regime of Mohammed Ali and his opposition to British, French and Turkish domination of the region. It hearkened back to the nationalist uprisings of 1881 and 1919 against British domination. Further, it took a complicated approach to the traditional opposition forces of the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, at times utilizing them to crush secular internationalist forces and at other times playing them against each other in a cynical game that was meant to maintain authority solely in the hands of the military regime, whatever its civilian dressings. It was an Arab nationalism from above, dominated by state enterprises run by a well-positioned bureaucracy who positioned themselves as the guardians of Arab independence against Western neo-colonialism.

1952s Contradictions Come to a Head

This system could not last forever. The bureaucracy, reeling after multiple defeats at the hands of the well-armed and funded Israeli Defense Forces and stinging from economic stagnation brought on by the inefficiencies of elite management of enterprises from above—which stifled all forms of self-management that emanated from the powerful Egyptian working-class—would undertake a severe revision of its role in the society and the Arab world, especially after the crushing of the 1977 uprising (in which the avowedly secular regime would unleash the rightist forces of the Muslim Brotherhood against leftists, youth and workers who agitated from economic reform and political independence).

Following the Camp David Accords and the assassination of Anwar Sadat (by a radical violent fringe of the Brotherhood, who to this day remain bitter enemies of the reformist and moderate Brotherhood), the regime went through a complete makeover. State enterprises would be sold off to Western companies, resulting in the growth of an ostentatiously wealthy elite (the former bureaucracy). At the heart of this would be the National Democratic Party of President Mubarak and the military elite, who formed a solid wall whose rhetoric of secular Arab nationalism fell hollow in face of the reality of appeasement of Israeli aggression, capitalist reform (something abhorrent to Nasser who felt that capitalism had only brought division, poverty and ruin at the hands of imperialism to his people) and police state repression.

Egypt would become the developing world’s largest recipient of foreign aid via the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the next thirty years, but not to the benefit of its people. Most of the aide went into the hands of foreign investors, the Egyptian elite or towards the construction of new and more inventive ways of repressing the masses of people. Especially after the 1990’s austerity programs, poverty would become the norm for most Egyptians with 40% living on less than $2 dollars a day. A culture of torture dominated the police forces (with assistance from the United States’ FBI educators) and secret police (the Mukhabarat).

This explosive combination of severe repression and brutal economic exploitation has been building for the better part of three decades—but even beyond that. It is a consequence of trusting the management of the country to an elite whose institutions serve largely to self-perpetuate over time and consequently have developed interests that have diverged from the spirit of 1952, but only through their consistent application. By entrusting the development of the society in the hands of an elite group, whatever their ideological pretensions, it would only be a matter of time before that group’s interests in self-perpetuation would become forms of self-aggrandizement at the expense of the masses of people. The Mubarak regime was not a sharp break, but a continuation of the policies of the Sadat regime. The same military regime remains in power today that oversaw the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

The Spirit of 2011

Enter today.

After several years of a serious strike wave, the brief specter of broad mobilization brought on by the 2003 antiwar demonstrations and the catalyst of Tunisia’s remarkable uprising against their own dictatorial government, a new movement has been born.

We can call this the spirit of 2011, the spirit of Arab nationalism—from below. The characteristics of this new spirit are unfolding, but their main features have been write large in the stunning uprising of the past three weeks or so. This spirit involves the self-determination of the people of Egypt via a repudiation of the elite strategies of the major opposition parties (whether the Wafd, the Brotherhood, or the reformist Nasserists or any other) who were the last to join the street mobilizations and the first to declare themselves “on the same page” with the new military authorities following the release of their political prisoners.

This movement is based on self-management and a dynamic leadership on the street level and at the workplace, though it lacks the coherency of a political organization that can organize these broad masses with the strategy necessary to win their goals. Independent labor forces, from strike committees to the emerging independent union, have played the crucial role of breaking the back of the regime. Two weeks of demonstrations were not enough to lead to Mubarak’s departure; two days of strikes by the petrochemical, transport, steel and numerous other industries brought the military into provisional authority in short order. Beyond this, neighborhood defense committees and more-or-less organic protest mobilizations provide a popular committee model of the exertion of political power that challenges not only the prevailing order of the regime, but also the order of the opposition parties themselves. It is, in an embryonic form, a challenge to liberal democracy itself with its model of electoral politics and elite parties who contend every few years to (mis)represent the people and secure the interests of the elite sectors of their respective societies.

Against the calls to end the occupation of Tahrir Square and to demobilize and return to work stands a dedicated core of workers, youth and middle-class revolutionaries whose clear demands bring them into sharp confrontation with the regime. These demands include the immediate release of all political prisoners, the dismantling of the interior ministry’s security services, the abolition of secretive military courts, the prosecution of those responsible for the murders that have taken place at the hands of the police following the January 25th uprising, the dissolution of the illegitimate parliament, the suspension of the constitution, the transfer of power from a military authority to a provisional council representing the various revolutionary organizations, the abolition of the emergency law that has been in effect since 1981, among other demands.

The Military Regime’s Strategy

The strategy of the regime is to count on the dividends of the past to buy their way out of the present crisis. In short, they are counting on people to forget the events of the last two weeks, to assume them to be an exceptional moment whose existence was justified by Mubarak’s refusal to leave, but whose time of departure has come hand in hand with Mubarak’s own departure. The prevailing narrative they are disseminating via their media arms and their official communiques is that of a return to normalcy.

Accordingly, they are moving rapidly to return things to normal. They have banned strikes and labor union organizations. The regime has moved swiftly to make deals with the Brotherhood (which has declared that it is “on the same page” with the new regime) and the other opposition parties. Accordingly, it has suspended the constitution and dissolved the hated parliament, yet mysteriously refused to strike down the emergency law. The intent of this is transparent: to maintain repression of the street movement and the labor movement while co-opting the official opposition, riding on their support of the regime’s “peaceful transfer to democracy.”

The aim is to demobilize the people, crush the labor movement, maintain the regime and its support of US and Israeli foreign policy and provide a spectacle of democracy via managed elections in which nothing much will really change.

Challenges for the Movement of 2011

The movement has to overcome its leaderless structure on the national level if it is to survive the coming months—even weeks. A coherent leadership and organization must arise to give direction to the self-managed forces of the street and workplace in order to further the struggle and challenge the elite via more industrial actions (which can cripple them in days) and outreach to the masses of people—in particular, the rank and file of the armed forces.

If the masses of soldiers—whose interests lie with the people and who are bound to have at least one close acquaintance who has been in the streets or on strike if demographics mean anything at all—can be one over to a revolutionary program, then all bets are off for the spirit of 1952.

Flashpoints are emerging. The standoff in Tahrir Square could result in its clearing in hours or days. The prospect of attempts to break through the Rafah crossing into Gaza in order to break the siege could bring the military into a difficult position: will it sacrifice what remains of the trust that emerged from the spirit of 1952, dashing 2011 on the rock a hated pro-Israeli policy whose only purpose seems to be to crush the lives and spirit of Egypt’s Arab brothers and sisters? Further, the prospect of military occupations of various workplaces—especially to break the factory occupations, transport and oil strikes—could give the regime an ugly face very fast.

The spirit of 2011 is rocking the entire Arab world and inspiring revolutionaries everywhere. Its most potent image is that of Christians and Muslims holding dual prayer services in Tahrir, chanting “We are one!” Its most powerful weapon has been its self-management via popular committees, social networking sites, independent labor organization and repudiation of opposition party leadership. The fate of this movement will determine the future of the region.

Whatever happens, the region—and, indeed, the world, will never be the same. The democracy genie is out of the bottle for all to see.