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Finding a Collective Voice

A Path Forward for Egypt’s Revolution

by SHAMUS COOKE

The battle for the future of Egypt is underway, and it’s chaos. There has been violence on both sides of the divide, with the military inflicting the heaviest doses on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The violence combined with any lack of long-term solution could bode poorly for Egypt’s future, but the situation is in extreme flux, and by no means anywhere settled. There is still abundant hope for most Egyptians to achieve a better world, though time is of the essence.

Most hopeful is that Egyptians are still mobilizing in the streets by the hundreds of thousands, and more. This people power exerts an automatic pressure on the Egyptian elite — the implied threat being their downfall — and creates endless opportunity for positive change in Egypt.

It’s easy to look at the current spasms of violence and denounce the events in their entirety, as many pundits are now doing, looking for the root of the evil in the revolution itself (a predictably poor analysis). An equally poor perspective denounces the coup-making military and praises the “pro-democracy” Muslim Brotherhood, who should “rightfully” be in power.

But the situation is more complex, and the revolutionary x-factor remains the masses of people who remain in the streets seeking to change Egyptian society. The Egyptian masses are consistently left out of the analysis by pundits who recognize only institutional power, whether it be the military or the Brotherhood. But the agenda of the people — though not completely articulated at this time — constitutes the greatest potential for social power in Egypt. This power has been unleashed on several occasions, yet there is still potential for even greater eruptions.

The military understands this power of the Egyptian people very well; the generals don’t normally ask for a mandate to enact repression, as they recently did. The military was compelled to ask because of their political weakness in the face of the outpourings of millions. The Egyptian people are front and center in the military’s calculations to hold onto power, even if they are ignored by the typical political analyst.

The military is also limited in its actions by the rank and file soldier, many of whom view themselves as part of a “people’s military” — a military that represents the Egyptian people. This attitude of the rank and file soldier limits the general’s ability to repress the broader population.

The “people’s military” perspective is also shared by many Egyptians due to Egypt’s unique past, where, under Nasser, the military played a progressive role in the economy and foreign policy. The current generals benefit from this history while having done nothing to earn it — they represent a fundamentally counter-revolutionary role.

For now the Egyptian people seem to be giving the military a mandate to break the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom many Egyptians rightfully view as a threat to their civil liberties and a barrier to their revolution, the second act of which was directly aimed against the Muslim Brotherhood government.

The Brotherhood was given a smashing democratic impeachment by the Egyptian people during the massive demonstrations that started on June 30th. The people voted with their feet in huge numbers with one demand: Morsi must go. When the military forcibly removed the Muslim Brotherhood, most analysts instantly forgot that the Egyptian people were demanding exactly that, and screamed about the death of democracy via military coup.

Of course, the generals have their own agenda — and, of course, foreign powers are frantically trying to stay dominant to whomever is in power in Egypt — but we cannot forget that the Egyptian masses have their own agenda, which made its voice very clear in regards to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

To reduce the massive anti-Morsi demonstrations to a mere “coup” is to completely ignore the millions of people in the streets, as if they didn’t exist. Not all coups are cut from the same cloth. When the Egyptian military intervened against the dictator Mubarak — in nearly the same circumstances — everyone agreed there was a revolution underway, since it was incredibly obvious. When demonstrations again occurred that were at least as large as the anti-Mubarak protests, the label “coup” is employed, with zero consistency.

The only difference between the two events was that Morsi was elected,  but this seemingly profound point shrivels under closer examination.

The pro-Morsi pundits forget that Morsi barely won an election against a figurehead from the Mubarak dictatorship; the Egyptian people were given no real choice after exercising the revolutionary audacity that forced Mubarak’s downfall.

Thus, millions of Egyptians wisely chose to boycott the fraudulent election that western pundits now demand be respected (50 percent of eligible voters did not vote). But revolution is a higher form of democracy than the western-modeled electoral system: revolution makes perfectly clear what the people want, or reject. Morsi was questionably elected but indisputably rejected.

“Wait,” the pro-Morsi pundit cries, “term limits are a sacred aspect of democracy!” But how can anyone demand that the Egyptian people wait any longer for social change? They’ve waited for decades and are now awake from their political slumber, rightfully demanding change now.  They recognize that this exceptional revolutionary moment must be seized, not frittered away through elite dominated elections. Term limits in this case act as a brake to real democracy.

How does anyone tell the millions of impoverished Egyptians to “wait” and get out of the streets? Morsi was given more than enough time to prove that he, like Mubarak before him, represented only the elites. He has been discarded in the exact same way, having earned his fate.

Suddenly, the Muslim Brotherhood is now portrayed as martyrs for democracy. It’s true that innocent people have been killed, but it’s equally true that the Brotherhood itself is not a harmless organization, and certainly not one that values democracy.

The Brotherhood has a long history of supporting violence in Egypt and remains dedicated to a fundamentalist version of an Islamic state, which implicitly discriminates against non-Muslims and non-fundamentalist Muslims, while subjecting 50 percent of the population — women — into a permanent state of second-class citizenry. The Brotherhood has — with the financial assistance of the Gulf monarchies — been instrumental in the “Islamization” of Egypt, meaning that a fundamentalist version of Islam is being culturally imposed on Egypt (most Egyptians are already Muslims). A western example would be the Christian far right in the U.S. imposing their religious beliefs — which they’ve done semi-successfully —on the rest of society, though most in the U.S. remain Christians of the non-fundamentalist variety.

Like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, “political Islam” provides a religious cover for right wing politics, which benefits the nations richest citizens to the detriment of everybody else.

When combined with the power of the state and the purse strings of the rich, Islam becomes — like any other religion — a barrier to democracy and a springboard to discrimination (take Israel for example). Morsi’s brief, incompetent reign included a trajectory towards religious sectarianism, authoritarianism, and open encouragement of “jihad” against the Syrian government — all natural conclusions of so-called “political Islam.”

Moreover, the Brotherhood is only a political actor of any significance due to its decades of foreign funding and support from Saudi Arabia (now Qatar has taken over this role). These Gulf monarchy dictatorships supported the Brotherhood in an effort to artificially push Egyptian politics and culture to the far right, in line with the Gulf monarchy dictatorships, which deserve nothing but contempt.

Furthermore, Mubarak and Sadat likewise propped up or tolerated the Brotherhood to varying degrees as a conservative counterbalance to the Egyptian left and trade unions, to the detriment of Egypt in general. In short, the Brotherhood owes its political livelihood to completely reactionary benefactors, who’ve chosen the Brotherhood to further the worst political social agendas in existence. “Political Islam” was for decades an untested ideology that, in practice, served only the wealthy who hid behind the veil of religion. These awful politics were finally put into practice and exposed when Morsi was elected president, and the nation rejected them.

It’s true that there have been large pro-Morsi demonstrations, but none of them have been remotely equal to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. This is especially important because the anti-Morsi demonstrations certainly represent a larger portion of non-protesting Egypt, since the Brotherhood is a well-organized political machine that ensures that a large percentage of their members and sympathizers attend important political events. The broader population who gave Morsi a chance has since disposed of him and want the Brotherhood out of their politics as well as their personal freedoms.

The most difficult question regarding recent events involves the political stalemate that the Brotherhood has forced on the nation and what the majority anti-Morsi public should do about it.

A key question must be asked: if the majority of Egyptians have demanded — and continue to demand — that the Brotherhood be evicted from power, and the Brotherhood continues to use violence and mass civil disobedience until they are reinstated, what is to be done? There is no middle ground here, since the Brotherhood has refused any concession short of the reinstating of Morsi.

The recent events in Egypt are ultimately a battle for power; and on one side of this battle you have the majority — i.e. democracy — of Egyptian people who are vehemently anti-Muslim Brotherhood. There are no easy answers here. Being “against violence” is an especially easy way to avoid these complex political issues that are ultimately a struggle for political power.

One example of this battle for power took place when the pro-Morsi demonstrators attempted to block the October 6th Bridge in central Cairo, the central artery of traffic and commerce of the capital city. It’s true that the Egyptian military used excessive force in breaking up the action, but it’s also true that such an action — and others like it —pose a direct challenge to the people’s wish to be politically rid of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is attempting to use force — in the form of militant civil disobedience and violence — to force the Egyptian people to concede to their one demand — the reinstatement of Morsi. Force must be countered with force, not empty phrases.

But who should be employing this force? Delegating this task to the Egyptian military is extremely dangerous. Not only will the military inevitably kill innocent people — thus reinforcing the Brotherhood’s base — but the generals have a political agenda of their own, based on their own economic interests that the average Egyptian — not to mention the rank and file soldier — has nothing in common with.

If the Egyptian people view the Muslim Brotherhood as the most immediate threat to their revolution — which seems reasonable — revolutionary Egyptians need also to immediately organize themselves as an independent force in self protection from the Brotherhood and the army, which should include reaching out to the rank and file Egyptian soldier.

If the Brotherhood is the most immediate threat to the revolution, the generals come in at a close second, although the current state of the military could not possibly suppress the revolution in its current state, and the military knows it.

But this can change fast. If the generals are able to successfully destroy the power of the Brotherhood and feel that they have the broader population unquestionably behind them — thus strengthening their position — they will immediately go after the Egyptian left and trade unions, to ensure that their elite interests are protected. Egypt’s history is full of this exact dynamic, starting with Nasser who crushed the Brotherhood — after they tried to assassinate him — and then quickly went after the Egyptian left.

And although the military and its economic benefactors are trying to create an ultra-nationalistic, pro-military attitude among the Egyptian people — which could possibly strengthen the military — the masses have interests of their own that easily transcend the abstract “love of country,” not to mention the empty politics of “political Islam.”

The broader Egyptian population must clearly put forth their independent demands, which, if united in an organized way, can cut the power of the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood at the kneecaps. The long term political loyalty of the masses will not depend on religion or patriotism, but on what organization fights for their collective interests, expressed in the demands for jobs, bread, public services, and a foreign policy that isn’t subservient to the United States, Israel or their competing puppet Gulf monarchy dictatorships.

An independent mass movement has been the critical missing link in Egyptian politics for decades, which has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to falsely pose as the “opposition” in Egyptian politics. But now a new, much stronger opposition has been formed via revolution, which, if strengthened, will dissolve the political and economic basis on which “political Islam” stands, while inevitably demanding the political and economic base of the generals be destroyed.

An independent political path around the military and the Brotherhood isn’t utopian. For example, in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, the founder of the left-wing Nasserite Party, Hamdeen Sabahi, won 20 percent of the vote (Morsi won only 24%), barely missing the 2nd place finish needed to make it to the 2nd and final round. Another independent candidate won 17 percent of the vote.

In short, there is already broad support for a political program that serves the needs of the majority of Egyptians. Once these demands are properly articulated and effectively organized around, the situation in Egypt will have fundamentally changed, since the people in Egypt will have found their collective voice regarding what they collectively aspire toward, easily pushing aside the obstacles to their revolution once and for all.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com.