North Africa, West Asia

Coercion and social change: the case of the Egyptian revolution

Maged Mandour

Would a renewed 'Jacobin spirit' among the revolutionary forces in Egypt push the movement towards its logical conclusion?


Maged Mandour
24 January 2014

The eruption of the Arab revolutions, with the disappointment and disillusionment that ensued, has pushed me as well as many other observeres and participants into a soul-searching process, to which there is no apparent end in sight. This process has posed fundamental questions about the nature of revolutions, the role of civil resistance and coercion in social change - questions that may tell us more about the past than the future.

The term revolution appears to have been casually deployed by a number of people, especially in the Arab world. But this poses a very important question: does the Egyptian uprising classify as a revolution? Did it have so-called “revolutionary goals”? Theda Sckopol, in The State and Social Revolution, makes a distinction between political and social revolution. She defines a political revolution, as a revolution that aims to alter the political system within a particular polity, without striving to make wideranging societal changes. The English civil war is used as an example of this type of revolution; where the nature of the English political system was changed by the use of arms, without being accompanied by wideranging societal structural changes. On the other hand, she defines social revolutions, as mass societal upheavals that aim at altering societal power structures, leading to wideranging societal structural changes; a process through which one social class replaces another as the dominant force in society; the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions are her examples.

Within this classification, where does the Egyptian revolution fall? What were the demands of the thousands of protestors who poured into the streets? Was it simply a movement pushing for reform? The Egyptian revolution was not preceded by a longterm ideological struggle in the realm of civil society, and the movement lacked a unitary central character that would allow it to disseminate its ideological hegemony within the realm of civil society, to lay the ground for revolutionary action. Instead, the revolutionary movement was rejectionist in nature: it knew what it did not want. This makes the task more difficult in terms of determining the nature of the movement. One can plausibly argue, that the Egyptian revolution was a revolt against the military/crony capitalist alliance – the ruling class – that dominated the Egyptian political scene, that aimed to replace the regime with another dominated by the middle class. Thus, one could argue that the Egyptian revolution was a revolutionary ‘situation’ that failed to materialize into a full blown revolution; it was steered towards reform. The protests were against the head of the regime, rather than against the regime itself; hence, the aim was to reform rather than dismantle the regime.

This poses another question; why did this ‘situation’ not explode into a fullblown social revolution, at least with regards to the demands? One answer comes from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who examined the French revolution. He argued that a "Jacobin Spirit" pushed the French Revolution from its early reformist nature to a full blown social revolution that changed the face of Europe, and the world, as radicals were able to hijack the process of change and push it beyond its original limits. This “Jacobin Spirit” is lacking in Egypt, even among the most ardent revolutionaries, which in turn has pushed the revolution away from its demands towards accommodating the existing elites. This gave space for the counter-revolution to regroup and launch a vicious attack that decimated the already divided revolutionary forces, in effect, degrading the revolution to a reform movement aimed at pressurising the existing elites, rather than eliminating their power base, or significantly altering the societal structures that support their political power.

This brings me to my second point, about the role of coercion in societal change. Note, that I do not use the word “progress”, in order actively to avoid the positive connotations associated with the word. The question is, can wideranging societal change, especially if it is revolutionary, be introduced by governing social forces without significant levels of coercion, if not outright violence? One only needs to look at the history of capitalist development to understand that wide ranging societal change can only be introduced with significant doses of coercion.

As E.P Thomson illustrated in his brilliant Making of the English Working Class; the industrial revolution caused extensive suffering among the artisans of England, as their traditional way of life was decimated. At times, the Luddite movement bears witness to this necessarily violent struggle against a nascent capitalist system. Another example would be the Enclosure Acts, which converted the common holding of English villages into private property, again devastating the traditional way of life of English peasants in the name of “private property” and “progress”. This, for better or worse, is an example of extensive use of coercion where new social systems were establishing themselves. Another good example is the Meiji restoration in Japan, which in the name of modernity decimated the Samurai class, ending their social privileges and forever altering the power structure within the Japanese polity.

Based on the above, one could argue that in order for a new system to establish itself, the use of coercion against other social forces seems to be inevitable. In Egypt’s case, the revolutionary forces were never in a ‘coercive’ position against their opponents; in fact the transition period was entrusted to the same elites who should have been the object of such coercion. It is also    important to note that the revolutionary movement’s focus was not directed towards such courses of action. For example, the notion of confiscating or seizing the military’s economic empire has not featured in Egypt's revolutionary rhetoric since the eruption of the revolution in 2011, except as deployed by the Revolutionary Socialists.

This lack of a 'Jacobin spirit' means that revolutionary forces were not radical enough to eliminate the societal power-center that’s capable of opposing it; the aim was to pressure the existing regime to be more inclusive, rather than to introduce wider social change.

Please note that I have not used the word violence, in the hopes of broadening the scope of the argument, and to highlight the notion that a revolution can be peaceful while at the same time it is highly coercive. Coercive in the sense that it radically re-structures societal power relations and eliminates the power of its rivals. For example, the agricultural land reform enacted by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which effectively destroyed the societal power base of the old land elites, was a peaceful, nonetheless, highly coercive move. 

Additionally, the economic structure of the Egyptian state as a rentier state, reduces the pressure on the state to become more inclusive. Charles Tilly, in his study of the development of the European state, argues that the growth of representative institutions within a state is dependent on the needs of the wielders of coercion that extract capital from different classes inhabiting their domain. This involves a bargaining process that should make the political order more inclusive, where the wielders of capital extract concessions from the wielders of coercion. In the case of Egypt, the economic power of the military, and its ability to extract rent from the United States, international financial institutions, and now other powers in the region, insulates it from the need to bargain with the other classes that inhabit its domain. Moreover, there is no clear distinction between the wielders of coercion and capital in Egypt; the military is the largest wielder of capital, creating significant barriers for a more inclusive state.    

Finally, what is the nature of the revolutionary struggle? How can such a struggle be won? The revolution is not simply about societal change; it is also a revolution against oneself, the feeling of inferiority that the oppressed experience. This was brilliantly captured by Franz Fanon in his master piece The Wretched of the Earth, where he analyzed the Algerian Revolution from a psychiatric perspective; he argued that it is only through struggle that the oppressed can re-construct their own identities and overcome the feeling of inferiority that inhibits their societal participation. The disappointments of the Egyptian revolution and the failures of the revolutionary movement have only acted to compound these feelings. The first step of the revolutionary process, according to Fanon, has not materialized.   

I see these as the failures of the Egyptian revolution. However, it is important to note that the situation is not hopeless. As argued elsewhere, if General El Sisi runs for president and wins, it will open up new possibilities for the continuation of this struggle. However, the nature of the struggle will be different this time, due to attempts to centralize an already de-centralized power structure. The military cannot rule alone. A renewed 'Jacobin spirit' among the revolutionary forces could push the movement towards its logical conclusion, namely the introduction of wide-ranging societal changes in Egypt.     

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