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Egyptian society finds itself at a crossroads. The violence unleashed in recent days appears to be just the beginning and the repercussions for the entire region are apparent to all.
To better understand what is currently happening it is important to place the political events in their proper social and economic context. Only an analysis of the class nature of this conflict will permit progressive forces both in Egypt and in other Middle Eastern societies to derive the necessary political lessons from the unfolding events.
In the face of the political vacuum created by three decades of autocratic rule under Mubarak, only the Muslim Brotherhood was capable of organizing a disciplined response to his abrupt overthrow. Various decades of organizing mutual aide societies and social service networks among the poor, at times with the tacit approval of what was otherwise a negligent regime, gave popular legitimacy to the Brotherhood. Its followers were recruited from the disaffected within the margins of society. This was the ample social base from which the Freedom and Justice Party was organized in January of 2011. The result was a narrow victory in the 2012 elections and control over the parliament.
Notwithstanding, it is important to examine the class origins of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership to better understand its ideology as well as the crux of its conflict with the armed forces on the one hand, and with the opposition on the other. The leaders of the Brotherhood come from the Egyptian petty bourgeoisie. More specifically, their leadership is composed of elements from the liberal professions and small-scale industrialists that developed during the waning days of British domination. (In reality, the British protectorate lasted until 1952.) In the heart of the Brotherhood’s leadership one will find engineers, doctors and local capitalists with interests in manufacturing whose operations often employ hundreds of workers. In sum, the power of this group is the result of an alliance between small capital and the declassed elements of society they have been able to mobilize.
The complex character of social life in the Middle East often results in a confluence of anti-imperialist rhetoric and religious affirmation. So called “political Islam” is the logical form nationalism takes in societies in which all factions of the ruling class, along with the petty bourgeoisie, tend to see religion as the most effective ideological tool to complement the brutal repression of the working masses. Beyond all of its religious rhetoric and moralizing declamations, the economic program of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing more than an attempt to break the stronghold of larger-scale, local capitalist interests concentrated in the Egyptian State (more specifically within the armed forces) and aligned to international capital. Like all small-scale capitalists suffocated by monopoly, they demand an opening of the market and an end to state control held by elements with which they have conflict. They perceive this state monopoly to be buttressed by foreign interests. As such, they are the representatives of reactionary small capital whose economic nationalism embraces free markets. A peculiar combination indeed!
The upper echelons of the Egyptian army have managed state power to accumulate great quantities of capital in the areas of construction, manufacturing, service industries, etc. The practice of using the neocolonial State as an instrument to accumulate capital is commonplace. The legacy of Nasser lay in developing the mechanisms by which the armed forces could serve as the institutional framework for this capital accumulation. Both Sadat and Mubarak deepened this practice. Through the Ministry of Military Production, the military directors of state enterprises have been able to exploit the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers to whom they pay abysmally low wages to ensure the maximum extraction of surplus value. The ties between the upper crust of the military and both the public sector and private enterprises are vast and well known. Indeed, the extent of wealth accumulated by this militarist clique is so great that they were recently able to function as financiers to the non-militarized sectors of the State. It is important to note, however, that its role as financier has not reached the point at which it can negate the power of regional “donors” (e.g. Qatar, Saudi Arabia) or the pernicious influence of the IMF.
As such, the upper crust of the military, buttressed by $1.3 billion in US military aid (a sum only surpassed by that received by the imperialist puppet state of Israel), represents big, native capital in the Egyptian context. It is a situation reminiscent of the corporatist state under Mussolini, which saw a complete fusion of big business and the State. The idea that the armed forces exist “above” class conflicts as the representatives of the nation is not only characteristic of petty bourgeois reaction, it forms the ideological basis of all reactionary regimes. What big, Egyptian capital has done is revive the remnants of this petty bourgeois demagogy as a distraction. Their short-term political strategy consists of recruiting a faction of the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood capable of lulling the radicalized masses.
Let us see how and why.
The Egyptian “opposition” is composed of a heterogeneous mass. It could not be otherwise given the history of brutal repression to which the majority has been subjected. On the one hand we find a liberal faction of this opposition composed of another sector of the petty bourgeois that is “enlightened” and “very democratic.” Groups such as Tamorad, the Constitutional Party, etc. that have entered the National Salvation Front highlight their secularism and promote a vision of modernity. They are classic liberals and Mohamed ElBaradei is their best-known representative. Educated in the US and Europe, very cosmopolitan, he seems to be the preference of the West.
The tacit alliance between this liberal faction and the army is based on demagogy on the one hand and the quest to eliminate a rival on the other. It is certainly a most precarious alliance but it serves for the moment the logic and political objectives of both sides. For the militarists, the immediate political objective consists in propping up a political force sufficiently credible to calm the discontent for the moment without interfering with either its economic interests or its relations with the West. Their immediate target is small capital, which has dared to challenge its monopoly from parliament and the non-militarized apparatuses of the State. They are keenly aware, however, that the greater threat to their power comes from below. The liberals achieve an opportunity to administer the State in exchange for a pledge to not interfere with the economic interests of the military or international finance capital. Their prize consists of the crumbs that are left to them.
There is another important faction of the opposition composed of workers, only some of which are organized, and the radicalized youth. They are the true catalysts of the processes unleashed even if they may lack organizational coherence for the moment. The mobilization of this progressive force is a popular and spontaneous response to the perpetual crisis that afflicts the Egyptian economy; an economy that is oriented towards exports in which the recent and abrupt changes in trade relations (It is interesting to note that since the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood agricultural imports e.g. wheat, corn, from the United States to Egypt have been reduced to zero.) have aggravated an already precarious problem of unemployment and high consumer prices. They have joined the National Salvation Front to spread their vision of the future, which combines political freedom and a call to end extreme social and economic inequity. Some form part of the trade union movement, which has a long history of arduous battles, often under conditions of illegality. Others form part of radicalized student circles with a degree of socialist consciousness.
The challenge that this progressive faction of the opposition has is how to assert its ideological and organizational independence. The tensions between the different factions within the National Salvation Front are evident. It would seem that at the moment, the balance of forces favors the liberal faction as the hegemonic group within the opposition. Progressive groups run the risk of ending up consumed by the liberal rhetoric intended to disarm them both ideologically and organizationally, or breaking with the liberal opposition before being able to take their message of radical transformation to the whole society sufficiently deep enough to penetrate its collective conscience. Isolating themselves completely could leave them vulnerable to the tanks and helicopters of the US-backed militarists without even the slightest politico-military preparation.
It seems that the true progressives in Egypt will have to be content playing second fiddle in the current political contest. Their struggle for the moment will be to conquer the political space necessary to reinforce their organizational structures and carry out a campaign of systematic and coherent agitation among the millions of discontents. If they are able to seize this moment to conquer a true opening of the political space as well as to articular a clear and coherent program it will be a step forward.
For the moment the blood running in the streets is that of the poor that the Brotherhood has mobilized in its interests. While this remains the case, the liberals will continue to be content with “monitoring” the situation. Tomorrow, just as yesterday, those same cannons will be pointed at the workers and the progressive youth. The question remains: Will they be prepared?
Carlos Borrero is a New York based writer.