Egypt: neither the army nor Morsi!

Submitted by Matthew on 17 July, 2013 - 12:08

The events in Egypt have confounded the image that pundits of both right and left have about the Muslim world — that the people are dominated, or automatically inclined to, Islamist movements.

The movement against Morsi has been a huge popular movement against an Islamist government, and not just any Islamist government either. The Muslim Brotherhood, and its political wing, are in many ways the most formidable Islamist party, and it was democratically elected.

What’s taken place is a coup. It’s not something to celebrate, and is in fact quite dangerous. The fundamental nature of the movement in the streets is a continuation of the 2011 revolutionary movement, and it does represent a mass popular uprising against the Morsi government. But the uprising was curtailed by the army taking power.

The Morsi government has proved fantastically unpopular. The spark for the recent protests was a petition campaign calling on Morsi to resign, which got over 20 million signatures. The government was very exclusive — once it had won both the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Brotherhood were seen as taking all power for themselves. They’d pushed through an unpopular Islamic constitution. Morsi took executive power into his hands through the dismissal of judges and so on; that was widely and correctly seen as very undemocratic.

There have also been attacks on opponents of the Brotherhood in civil society, for example the dismissal of the director of the opera.

They are widely seen as having done deals with the security forces.

Heavy repression continued under Morsi — snipers shooting at demonstrators, the continuation of military courts to try people arrested on protests... The Morsi government was seen as not fundamentally different from the Mubarak regime.

The government was probably about to do a deal with the IMF, dismantling those elements of state welfare that had survived decades of neo-liberalism. They had eviscerated legislation which was bringing in more progressive taxation. They opposed a law to allow the registration of independent unions through workplace elections, and sided with employers over strikes.

Emblematically, they revived Mubarak’s “Cairo 2050” plan to socially cleanse Cairo and build prime real estate in working-class areas. Add to all this rising fuel costs, rising commodity prices, rising unemployment, and the general decay of people’s daily living standards.

Much commentary has contended that events in Egypt “prove” that the people don’t understand the nature of democracy — “they’ve elected this guy, they have to let him rule, that’s democracy!”

But even the US Declaration of Independence says: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...” That one should have the right to recall and replace people you’ve elected is a principle of radical democracy going back at least to the [1871] Paris Commune. The legitimacy of the demand that the Morsi government get out is not the issue here.

Who holds power now? Ultimately it was not the mass of the Egyptian people that overthrew and replaced Morsi, it was the army.

Who is this army? You can imagine a situation in which a radical upheaval had taken place within an army, so the army had itself been affected by the mass revolutionary movement outside.

Something roughly analogous happened in Portugal in the mid-1970s, where the programme around which much of the revolutionary left rallied came from a radical wing of the army. That’s not the scenario in Egypt. The army which has retaken power is the old regime. It is the Mubarak state.

Because of external pressures, they will probably hold elections. They have promised to do so quite quickly. But pressure will be key there – it’s not that the army has suddenly become a benign force. The fact that large sections of the mass movement seem to have substantial illusions in the army is troubling.

The worst-case potential scenario is Algeria in the early 90s. There, Islamists won local elections, the army intervened to prevent parliamentary elections, and a bloody civil war resulted in which, according to some estimates, 150,000 were killed. There have already been people killed in Egypt, most prominently the 50-or-so Morsi supporters shot outside the Republican Guard headquarters. I think it unlikely that Egypt will evolve in that direction, but even a smaller-scale version of that would not be good.

When the army first came onto the scene in the 2011 revolution, people were glad of their intervention, but that soon changed after the army took power and ruled in a very repressive way. People demonstrated against military rule. Some of those instincts seem to have been forgotten. And the current situation allows the Brotherhood to portray themselves as martyrs.

The question of how to appeal to the base of the Brotherhood, or even to the base of the Salafists to the Brotherhood’s right, is important for the mass movement.

The cadre of the Brotherhood is middle-class, but they have huge numbers of poor workers, peasants, and so on, who vote for them. The mass movement needs to be able to say to them: “we are not calling on the army to take power. That’s not our agenda.”

Opposing the coup in Egypt doesn’t mean going on Brotherhood demonstrations or calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. It means you are active in the mass movement and you argue against military rule and against the army taking power. People have done that: there were placards and banners visible in Tahrir Square arguing against military intervention and a coup.

Our tasks of solidarity, with the mass movement generally but particularly the socialist and working-class elements in it, are greater than ever.

• Clive was speaking at a Workers’ Liberty London forum on “Socialists and the Egyptian coup” on Thursday 11 July. This is an edited transcript of his speech.

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