Egypt’s Revolution: Between the Streets and the Army

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Above Egyptian protester wearing banner that says Leave

Egypt’s revolution will never be complete until the authoritarian neoliberal state is finally dismantled. Only the power of the streets can do this.

Morsi is trembling. Two days after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to once again demand the downfall of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood looks weaker and more isolated than ever. On Monday, the grassroots Tamarod campaign that kicked off the mass protests gave Morsi 24 hours to step down and threatened an indefinite wave of civil disobedience if he failed to comply. The army quickly joined in, giving the government a thinly-veiled 48-hour ultimatum to “meet the people’s demands”.

Since then, at least six government ministers have jumped ship, with rumors doing the rounds earlier on Tuesday that the entire cabinet had resigned. To further compound the pressure on Morsi, the army command released spectacular footage showing Sunday’s mass mobilizations from the bird’s eye view of the military helicopters that circled over Cairo carrying Egyptian and army flags — set to bombastic music, patriotic slogans and incessant chants of “Out! Out! Out!” directed at the President and Muslim Brotherhood.

On Tuesday morning, government officials, opposition leaders and the military command were all quick to deny that the army’s statements and actions were indications of an impending military coup — even though one of Morsi’s advisors had earlier gone off script and argued that the office of the Presidency did regard the army’s ultimatum as such. Still, Tamarod organizers and opposition leaders have unambiguously welcomed the army’s stance in the hope that its secular command will take their side and “gently” nudge the Islamists from power.

Many of those in the streets also seem to be broadly supportive of an army intervention. Every time one of the military helicopters flew over Tahrir, the people would greet it with loud cheers, chanting that “the people and the military are one hand”. Still, the hardcore activists who have struggled ceaselessly to defend their revolution over the past two-and-a-half years remember the lies and brutalities of the military junta that they themselves helped to push from power, and continue to call for total liberation: “No Mubarak, No Military, No Morsi!”

Meanwhile, reactionary elements from the Mubarak regime are staging a come-back. First of all, despite Morsi’s appointment of Al-Sisi as commander-in-chief, the army’s top-brass is still full of Mubarak-era appointments that continue to wield enormous power behind the scenes, not least through their vast economic empire. Apart from this, there is still Mubarak’s unreformed security apparatus — including the police — who despise the Islamists and have refused to protect their premises and headquarters from being ransacked by the protesters. Yet these are the same policemen who killed, tortured and maimed even peaceful protesters during the first uprising of 2011.

This cacophony is further complicated by the two main sources of support that Morsi can still count on: first the popular support base of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which continues to mobilize in defense of their President and which will refuse to let him be pushed out without putting up a fight; and second the Obama administration, which has just pledged its support for the “democratic” process, undoubtedly to preserve its overarching goal of maintaining regional stability and defending Israeli interests. Morsi hopes that the army won’t take action without the express approval of the US, on whose support he can still count. The question is: for how much longer?

Egyptian helicopters with flags

The Clash of Coalitions 

The main lesson we can draw from this historic episode is that revolutions are never clean-cut events undertaken by an easily-identifiable revolutionary subject, but always complex processes of inherently chaotic social struggle in which different elite factions vie for power and legitimacy, with the revolutionary multitude itself often caught in between them, at times allying itself with one side or another. Revolutions are almost always made by complex coalitions, and such coalitions may shift dramatically over time, partly out of ideological differences but mostly as a result of diverging economic interests. The Egyptian Revolution is no different in this respect.

For some, this inherently chaotic situation is a reason to urge restraint. The latest editorial pieces by The Guardian are particularly reactionary in this regard. First, the paper argued that the revolution is “on the brink of self-destruction” as a result of internecine struggles; then it urged protesters to exercise the “wisdom of the street” and demobilize in order to focus on meaningful economic reform first and the revolution’s promises of social justice and real democracy later; now its Middle East editor Ian Black writes that, “for all the drama, sacrifices and high-flown aspirations of the Egyptian revolution, the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power.”

Such media commentaries are not only riven with reformist fear but also hopelessly simplistic in their analysis of the extant social forces and the complex power struggles going on between them. While there is clearly a moment of truth in the statement that the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt, it also needs to be observed that the army is far from omnipotent. It knows it cannot rule by itself and is therefore bound to join one coalition or another. In the end, the army remains utterly dependent on three critical power resources:

  1. The $1.3 billion in military aid it receives from the US every year (and therefore continued US approval of its actions, which in turn hinges crucially upon the army’s commitment to the Camp David Peace Accords);
  2. The “privileged position” it derives from the economic empire it has built up over the decades, which is deeply integrated into the US military-industrial complex and which is being harmed significantly by investor fears over continued social unrest);
  3. The popular legitimacy that can only be provided by a sense of calm in the streets.

Clearly, these critical power resources of the Egyptian military stand in constant conflict with one another. The army’s need for popular legitimacy constantly runs up against the elite’s continued pandering to US and Israeli interests, as well as the enormous wealth its leadership has acquired over the decades. This is why the army constantly needs to radiate an aura of patriotism that claims to align the military command with the wishes of the people and the goals of the revolution; even if these wishes and goals are in many way in direct opposition to the army’s social dominance and its unaccountable “autonomous” role within the state apparatus.

Egypt at sunrise

The Power of the Streets

It is one thing to claim that the army is the ultimate arbiter of power; it is quite another to recognize that the streets have become a power-unto-itself in the contemporary political constellation in Egypt. It is easy (and convenient) to forget that the 1,5-year rule of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) following Mubarak’s ouster was itself driven out by social rebellion over the army’s brutal practices of torture and repression, its illegitimate influence over state institutions, and its enormous privileges in terms of economic wealth and power. The SCAF realized that its rule was eroding its base of popular legitimacy, which in turn threatened its economic interests. In order to preserve its position of social dominance, therefore, it called elections knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood would win, and that the military command would have to enter into an uneasy coalition combining the secular army’s privileged political and economic position with the cultural hegemony of Islamism.

But the deepening economic crisis meant that even a heavy dose of Islamist rhetoric could not maintain a stable hegemony. The state’s fiscal and monetary position rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the 2011 uprising, with the Central Bank’s reserves depleting, interest rates on sovereign debt spiking up, and foreign exchange shortages feeding into currency depreciation and rising prices of crucial imports like food and fuel. Recent months have witnessed vast fuel shortages, which clearly hit the poorest hardest. This has caused even religious Egyptians who initially supported the Muslim Brotherhood to turn their backs on Morsi and join the Rebellion campaign that kick-started the ongoing second uprising. The army now once again finds itself in a situation where the legitimacy upon which its privileged position depends is being eroded by the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood. It simply had to shift sides.

What we are witnessing, therefore, is not so much a military coup as an internal rearrangement between different elite factions. While the Brotherhood was hoping to create a Muslim-led ruling class in the vein of Erdogan’s Islamic neoliberalism in Turkey, the leadership of the army still hopes to preserve the privileges it obtained under three successive military dictatorships from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. In this game of clashing and constantly shifting coalitions, a military-dominated government is unlikely. The military knows that neither the streets nor the US will let it rule alone. To preserve its privileged position, it will probably try to enter into a coalition with its logical ideological ally: the secular opposition, likely to be led by Mohamed El-Baradei. The opposition itself, however, remains poorly organized and thoroughly divided. It is therefore unlikely that a new round of elections or even a technocratic transition government will do much to stabilize the crisis-ridden Egyptian state.

Ultimately, this crisis cannot be successfully resolved until the authoritarian neoliberal state that was built up by Mubarak in collaboration with global capital, the IMF and successive US governments, is fully dismantled. However complex and fraught with obstacles this process may be, the engine behind the revolution is now unmistakable: without the power of the streets, Egypt would continue to be ruled by authoritarian madmen, whether their names are Mubarak, Morsi or the Military. If the state and the elites who control it are forced to move, they do so not out of voluntary will but because yet another grassroots rebellion forces them to. As Comrades from Cairo just wrote in anopen letter published by ROAR, what Egypt now needs is not the fall of another president or regime — but the fall of the system as such. Only the fearless and continued struggle of the streets can bring this revolution to a successful conclusion.

Tahrir Fireworks