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Winning the Rank and File Soldiers in Egypt

by CARLOS BORRERO

The Western media has focused considerable attention on the semantic debate over whether or not the toppling of Mohamed Morsi must be called a coup d’état. This is more a reflection of the public relations dilemma faced by the Obama administration than any real concern for possible legal obstacles the administration anticipates in fulfilling its arms deliveries. This debate should not detract from the reality that no matter which political party, coalition, or personality ends up governing in Egypt in the short term, it is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that will continue to wield power during and immediately after the current transition.

The question of power is critical in a revolutionary situation and progressive forces in Egypt cannot afford to underestimate its importance. As such, it is worth looking more closely at the Egyptian army. Experienced revolutionaries from Africa and the Middle East are absolutely correct to remind us that the Egyptian army must be understood as dynamic; an institution with internal contradictions. As such, our analysis is based on an appreciation of dialectics.

It is well known that members of the Egyptian military high command have come to amass large amounts of capital. The militarist clique that forms the SCAF is an integral part of the most powerful capitalist interests in Egypt. We must also remember that there also exists an important corps of junior officers that enjoy material privileges and considerable social influence. Coming almost entirely from the intermediate strata of Egyptian society, they often harbor deeply entrenched class prejudices and use their positions to extract bribes and other material benefits within an institutional culture that is rife with corruption. This stratum of the military is in itself complex and dynamic. At its lower levels, many members of the officer corps aspire to ascend the ranks while others are content with relatively well-paid and stable employment that carries benefits. Though ostensible apolitical, the blind allegiance to its superiors that forms a major part of its indoctrination as well as the impulse towards self interest in a competitive and corrupt environment more frequently lead its members to side with reaction. Notwithstanding, the alienation many younger officers feel, a product of the gap between institutional rhetoric and practice, can lead them to side with progressive forces.

The vast majority of the soldiers in the Egyptian army come from the working poor, be they from the urban centers or the countryside. Often derisively called “dufflebag soldiers”, the conditions under which they serve are universally decried as inhumane. These conditions belie the romantic notions of the military now being advanced. The experience of rank and file soldiers, from their first days of basic training, is characterized by systematic attempts to humiliate them and break their spirits, wages so low that they are often forced to complement their meager earnings with work during vacation days, stiff and often unjust punishments for minor offenses, as well as – for the conscripts especially – the constant reminder that wealth very often trumps “civic responsibility.” The infamous kōsai refers to the common practice of the wealthy paying to avoid compulsory military service.

In sum, the same class stratification that exists in society as a whole is replicated within the armed forces. (It is only in this sense of the nation divided in classes, and not in the distortion of demagogues that the Egyptian army as representing the nation should be understood.) The implications of these internal contradictions are important and certainly not lost to those in power. Accounts of bonuses given to junior officers called upon to “police” demonstrationsii highlight the high degree of concern of the SCAF for maintaining the loyalty of their corps of junior officers. Economic pressures and the stockade are the main components of the strategy they use to maintain the compliance of the lower ranks in the army. This reminds us that the largest army in the Middle East – consisting of about half a million active members and another half million reservists – is composed mostly of working class men whose service is mainly based on economic necessity.

Given the size of the recent demonstrations, both in support of the overthrow, and to a lesser extent to support the restoration of Morsi, the magnitude of the violence in Egypt so far has been relatively small. However, this could change at any moment. The military high command is aware of the need to maintain the army’s image of neutrality before the people due to the delicate internal balance that sustains it as an institution. Yet the true meaning of the F16 and helicopter flyovers immediately after the overthrow of Morsi, ostensibly as a show of common cause with protesters, should not be lost. This act was a not so subtle warning that the SCAF is more than willing to order the repression of the revolutionary initiative of the masses in the event that it moves beyond the limits of what is acceptable to the generals. Though they prefer not to intervene directly, which explains their endorsement of the liberal opposition, they reserve the option to do so. The confirmation from the US Pentagon that the August delivery of four additional F16s will be fulfilled gives a clear signal that Washington will continue to support militarism in Egypt, no matter the outcome of the elections tentatively scheduled for early 2014.

About a hundred years ago, Russian revolutionaries fighting against the tsar and liberal warmongers understood the need to seize upon the internal contradictions of the army in the interest of political and economic progress, as well as peace. The old guard of Egyptian military high command, many of whom entered the ranks of the military during the Cold War shortly after Nasser turned to the Soviet Union to train and arm the Egyptian army understand full and well the critical role played by the soldiers of the Petrograd Soviet.

Within a week of direct military intervention, the SCAF was seeking an expedited solution to the crisis in the form of an inclusive interim cabinet and conciliatory overtures to Islamist groups by the interim President Adly Mansour and the acting Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi.

Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a significant force in Egyptian society in its own right. Its ability to continue organizing massive protests, even as Ramadan begins, poses a real problem for the generals. While the Brotherhood does not represent a direct military challenge to the army at this point, there is the real potential given the current state of polarization that an extension of the standoff or a deepening of tensions will make it possible for the Brotherhood to expand their support base and even split the rank and file of the army. The reported machinations against the Morsi regime by Mubarak loyalists reported in Al Jazeera as well as the New York Timesiii are sure to exacerbate the latent mistrust towards the military of the poor, notwithstanding the liberal rhetoric to the contrary.

Recent declarations from the Brotherhood leadership have been specifically aimed at the rank and file soldiers in an effort to undermine the control of the SCAF, a logically extension of the policy of “brotherization” carried out under the Morsi regime and widely rejected by both the opposition as well as the military high command. We should all be reminded that the extensive support that western imperialists gave to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood during the cold war to serve as stalwarts against increasingly class conscience revolutionaries. This history is well-documentediv and not lost to a new generation of progressive forces. Yet, it would be a grave error to conclude that the extension of the Brotherhood’s influence, as well as that of similar groups espousing religion to forward narrow economic interests, is due solely to external benefactors.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, Lenin expressed a clear and materialist position on the persistence of religious impulses in modern society, an analysis that helps elucidate why the message of groups like the Brotherhood continues to find resonance with broad sectors of society. Without falling into the trap of sectarian intolerance, he wrote:

“It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.   Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”v

Rank and file soldiers, like all members of the working class, are not and cannot be immune to the hardships and frustrations caused by the pervasive poverty, alienation and oppression that have given rise to the movement for political change in Egypt. They are also aware that many within today’s liberal opposition were in a tacit alliance with the Mubarak regime just over a year ago. Muslim Brotherhood demagogy seeks not only to take advantage of the dire material conditions created by capitalism but also to highlight the contradictions of the liberal opposition.

For the moment, progressives and revolutionaries have sided with the liberal opposition, which is nominally democratic and openly pro-capitalist. All progressives naturally and correctly coincide with the liberals when they reject religious obscurantism, the politics of exclusion, and the corruption that characterized both the Morsi government and its predecessors. Important political objectives for which they both fight include constitutional guarantees such as the right to organize unions, the legal equality of women, and a free press.

The most revolutionary elements within the progressive bloc go beyond liberal criticisms to demand concrete measures such as an increase in the minimum wage, a progressive tax system, debt relief for farmers and a redirection of public resources toward health services and education. They have re-launched the slogans of the January Revolution (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice and Human Dignity”) and urged the people to stay in the square. Many Egyptian revolutionaries have defined the current period as a second wave of the revolutionary process; a process they demand be carried to a socialist transformation of Egyptian society.

To the extent that the demands of the revolutionaries break the narrow limits of bourgeois liberalism, their current alliance with the liberals will break. The SCAF will have no options left but to unleash all of the repressive instruments of the State. The degree of class-consciousness of the rank and file soldiers, a key part of the mass of working class Egyptians, will determine the outcome of the next phase in the historical drama that is unfolding.

Carlos Borrero is a New York based writer.

NOTES

i Literally a zucchini but in Egyptian slang used to refer to favoritism.

ii Shenker, John. Egyptian Army Officer’s Diary of Military Life in a Revolution (28 Dec. 2011): n. pag. Web.http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/28/egyptian-military-officers-diary

iii “Exclusive: US Bankrolled Anti-Morsi Activists.” – Features. Al Jazeera, 10 July 2013. Web. 11 July 2013.

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/07/2013710113522489801.html

Hubbard, Ben and Kirkpatrick, David D. “Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi.” New York Times (blog). N.p., 10 July 2013. Web. 11 July 2013.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/11/world/middleeast/improvements-in-egypt-suggest-a-campaign-that-undermined-morsi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

iv Dreyfuss, Robert. Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. New York: Metropolitan, 2005. Print.

v Lenin, Vladimir. Collected Works Vol. 10. Socialism and Religion Progress Publishers 1965

Carlos Borrero is a New York-based writer.

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