Walk Like an Egyptian
Egypt’s ongoing political war has taken another, increasingly fascistic turn. The struggle turned most spectacularly in early 2011, and was waged continuously, then under the cover of social peace, until July 2013. Contemporary Egypt is experiencing a more acute crisis of hegemony. The political order is again being reconfigured to be one of an extended, or further entrenched, dominance by the social force of the military. This order is ideologically vapid and based overwhelmingly on violence.
To be clear, I am not speaking of the ridiculous Orientalist notion of “Islamofascism.” Nor am I invoking the fascism of bourgeois liberalism that wants to reduce the phenomenon to a Hitler or Mussolini. I am speaking of fascism in its productive essence and ideological appearance.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci identified three conditions for fascism: 1) the emergence of largely incoherent, leaderless and hitherto depoliticized popular forces, 2) alienation of the petty-bourgeoisie and middle classes, particularly bureaucrats, from the political system, and 3) a polarization of society that makes it appear headed for catastrophic conflict (Cox, Production, Power and World Order, pp. 191-192). Obviously, Egypt in July 2013 met these three conditions. Popular forces with no collective subjective identity anchored in objective conditions, and unified only by the Tamarod protest movement, occupied the streets and squares of the country. Small business owners had abandoned the Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood) and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as their interests were harmed by inflation and the devaluation of the Egyptian currency, and bureaucrats continued to resist the political order built largely by the FJP after victories in parliamentary and presidential elections. Finally, cleavages in society, most notably between the metropolis of Cairo and the periphery of the Sinai, made Egypt appear to be on the brink of dissolution and/or civil war.
These three conditions are necessary, but not sufficient for the emergence of fascism. Such an order also has revolutionary pretensions, is constructed by dominant groups and maintained through violence, and deploys bourgeois mechanisms of ideological control to paper over class cleavages. These aspects, too, obtain in contemporary Egypt.
First, the Tamarod movement and the military have both fashioned themselves revolutionary. Tamarod in Arabic means “rebellion” or “mutiny.” According to the military, the protests of 30 June represent a “glorious revolution,” and Defense Minister, and de facto President, Sisi’s subsequent words and actions a “continuation” of that revolution (http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/military-spokesperson-sisi-s-call-continue-30-june-revolution). Also, despite the obviously inflated claims regarding petition signatures and bodies in Tahrir Square, clearly large numbers of people protested the Morsi presidency prior to the military’s direct intervention into the political domain. It is the fact that people were protesting that allows the discourse in Egypt to hold that the military’s coup of 3 July is another, or a corrective, revolution. There is a simple, yet important lesson here, particularly for the supposedly critically minded: people taking to the streets do not a revolution make.
Second, dominant groups in Egyptian society built the contemporary political-economic order. It was the military, not the amorphous “people,” which toppled Morsi and the Ikhwan. The military was the most powerful social force in the country at the start of 3 July and it was the most powerful social force at the end of 3 July. This is precisely why the “people” had to turn to it. Be very clear: the military executed its plan under the cover of popular dissent; it did not execute some imagined popular will. Furthermore, it has been reported that Naguib Sawiris, one of Egypt’s richest men, was a major financier of the Tamarod movement. Other, lesser, capitalists also conspired to realize this new order. Owners of private gas stations, granted their licenses by the Mubarak regime, created a gasoline crisis in order to undermine the Ikhwan. The machinations of the military, monopoly capitalists and those associated with the monopoly capitalist class realized Egypt’s current order. Phrased differently, Egypt’s current order was built by deeply reactionary, still dominant capitalist forces.
Third, Defense Minister Sisi’s 24 July request for a mandate “to confront terrorism and violence” was a transparent request to authorize violence on the part of the state repressive apparatuses. The discourse of terrorism, inter alia, dehumanizes and ahistoricizes as a prelude to doing violence to political opponents. This is no more evident than in the recent Tamarod call to support the military in its “cleansing of the land of Egypt.” The practically violent nature of the current order is obvious in the redeployment of the military in urban centers and that 200 Egyptians have been killed since the start of July. At the risk of pushing analogies too far, the 23 July bombing in Mansoura is seemingly being set up as Egypt’s Reichstag Fire.
Finally, because fascism freezes into place, rather than resolves, class antagonisms, bourgeois ideological mechanisms, too, have been deployed to support the current Egyptian order; it is not all violent coercion. Sisi’s speech was saturated with populist nationalism. The Egyptian media has collaborated in the political reordering, celebrated it in fact. One TV host went so far as to melodramatically proclaim “I love you Egypt, I love you Egypt” and break into tears on-air after Morsi was deposed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdXlqadJC7U). Religious institutions have also lent their support. All three of Egypt’s big churches – the Coptic Church, the Evangelical Church and the Catholic Church – endorsed Sisi’s call for a mandate of violence. And, not surprisingly, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) also heeded Sisi’s call.
In yet another blow to the myth of Arab solidarity, Egypt’s fascistic order is making Palestinians the object of the familiar bourgeois ideological mechanism of xenophobia. The Rafah border crossing has been closed on the grounds that Palestinian infiltrators are behind the violence in Sinai. Palestinians are being denied entry to Cairo International Airport. “Palestinian” is being used as a smear – on 8 July a speaker on Egyptian television claimed that deposed President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin” (http://electronicintifada.net/content/why-are-egyptian-media-demonizing-palestinians/12632). And in a nice closing of the fascistic coup-xenophobia circle, the new order has just been announced that Morsi will be charged with conspiring with HAMAS.
In 2011, Egypt experienced a reconfiguration of its governing bloc as a result of a crisis of hegemony. The military replaced its junior partner, swapping the monopoly capitalist class associated with the Mubarak regime for the competitive capitalist class represented by the Ikhwan. Now, in 2013 the governing bloc is again being reconfigured. The consequences of this crisis will be even more dire. Between 2011 and 2013 the military collaborated with the social force of competitive capital to weaken and attack the social force of labor. Once labor was sufficiently disciplined, and the field of the political war cleared of other combatants, the military turned on its collaborator. Having crushed labor and competitive capital, the only social force now available to support the military is monopoly capital. The result of Egypt’s most recent political battle will either be the return to formal power of monopoly capital or the military being left without a junior partner. If monopoly capital formally returns to power, the pre-2011 order will have been restored. If the military is left without a junior partner, say as a result of popular opposition to the preceding scenario, it will enjoy no sustained ideological cover and will, in turn and of necessity, rely ever increasingly on violent coercion in order to govern. Egypt’s future gets bleaker and bleaker.
S. Fitzgerald Johnson is the nom de plume of a professor of political science specializing in the Middle East.