North Africa, West Asia

The revolt of the periphery

Maged Mandour

An important yet neglected dimension of the Egyptian revolution is Egypt's position as a peripheral country, the connection between its elites and the heart of capitalism. Egypt’s geo-strategic position makes it important.

Maged Mandour
26 April 2014

The Egyptian revolution has been treated as a local, at best, regional “Arab Spring” event. Most analysts, have looked generally at the events of the Arab Spring as an effect of the socio-economic conditions in the region, focusing less on the international dimension, and the position of Egypt as a peripheral country in the global capitalist system. At best, a connection was made of American support for the Egyptian military, or between the revolts and increasing food prices. This method of analysis, which I have also followed, is not incorrect. But it leaves an important dimension unexplained. A more rounded account of the failures of the Egyptian revolution can be drawn by looking at Egypt’s position as a peripheral country, and the connection between its local elites with advanced capitalist countries, which we might refer to as the core.

The role Egypt plays in the global capitalist system is not a traditional one as expected from a peripheral country. Unlike other countries in the periphery, Egypt is not a source of cheap labour used by international capital to create surplus value that is then siphoned off to the core, as is the case, for example, of a country like Bangladesh. Nor is Egypt a commodity producer; producing commodities that cannot be produced in core countries. Examples of these forms of exploitation are numerous, most visibly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Egypt’s importance lies in its geo-strategic position; close to the producers of the world’s most valuable commodity, namely oil.

However, the importance of Egypt has many folds. First, Egypt has the largest army in the Arab world and Africa. This makes it the only nation that has the ability to disrupt the neo-colonial project that took root in the Middle East since the end of WWI and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Second, the position of Egypt as a Sunni Arab nation, with the population of one third of the Arab world, makes it a cultural power house that also has the ability to resist the neo-colonial project that has taken root in the Middle East on the ideological front.

Finally, Egypt has the ability to co-opt other movements in the region, especially the movements in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria that have always been influenced by the ideological tide that stems from Egypt. One only needs to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt and now extend over the entire Arab world. Furthermore, the ideas of Arab nationalism only became an effective force in the Arab world after they were adopted by ruling elites in Egypt. One only needs to observe the trajectory of Nasserism and the hold of Arab Nationalism as the dominant ideology in the Arab world till its decline, after defeat in 1967. One can argue that its abandonment by the Egyptian elites, after the death of Nasser, signalled the end of its appeal, and that when others like Iraq and Syria clung to it, this eventually contributed to their regional isolation.                 

So, what is the significance of this regional importance to core countries? As already mentioned, the Middle East plays a pivotal role in the world economy as the provider of oil. The continuous supply is essential. Moreover this supply needs to remain in the hands of ‘friendly’ elites who will not use their monopolistic powers to affect oil prices, nor their windfall profits in a manner that could disrupt the status quo. 

But, how does Egypt fit into this model? Egypt plays a significant role in protecting the Gulf regimes from instability and possible aggression. On the external front, the Egyptian regime has proved itself willing to play the role of foot soldier to discipline any regional power that threatens the stability of Gulf regimes. Egypt’s role in the second Gulf war, operation “Desert Storm”, provides ample proof. 

Furthermore, Egypt with its demographic and cultural weight, is able to co-opt radical movements across the Middle East in a manner that is difficult for other regional players to emulate, which is of course, enhanced by its Arab Sunni nature. The clearest example is the role played in co-opting Hamas, the blockade of the Gaza strip, and Egypt's continuous vilifications of the movement in a manner that has reduced the ability of Hamas to play a significant regional role. This allows it to eliminate or weaken radical movements that might threaten to de-stabilise the status quo, which in the end enhances the stability of the Gulf regimes.

It is important to note that the importance of the Gulf states is not limited to the supply of oil. They also invest the returns in financial markets of the core, thus creating a market for a large number of industries, most notably the arms industry that has benefited greatly from the oil windfalls and Saudi’s obsession with increasing Iranian influence after the fall of Saddam Hussein, evident in the sky rocketing Saudi defense budget which increased from USD 25 billion in 2003 to reach almost USD 67 billion in 2013. 

This final piece of the puzzle relates to the potential of the Egyptian revolution in destabilising the regional, and perhaps international status quo. In order to give a full picture, one needs to look at this revolution as a part of a series of attempts by Egyptian nationalist forces to impose their hegemony on a regional level, superseding Egypt’s position as a peripheral country.

The first of those attempts can be traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century under Mohamed Ali, the “founder of modern Egypt”, who almost ended Ottoman hegemony in the Arab world, only to be rescued by European powers that already had a plan for the Arab world, in what is known as “The Oriental Crisis of 1840”. This first attempt was driven by military expansion, which drove demand and industrialisation. In effect, had it been left unhampered, it might have led to the development of a full blown capitalist system, with a nationalist bourgeoisie that could have paved the way to modernity. Considering the historical context, this was the next necessary step for the evolution of the Egyptian state, as a strong state able to resist imperialist ideals. Thus the defeat of the Egyptian army, that ended the process of military-driven industrialisation, also put a stop to Egypt’s attempt to take part fully in the global capitalist system.

The Egyptian revolution could then be compared to these attempts of Mohamed Ali, and of Nasser after him. Namely they are all an attempt to extend Egyptian hegemony on a regional scale, which would have naturally involved a disruption of the regional status quo. This would have terminated Egypt’s role as a protector of the Gulf states and suppressor of radical movements. Egypt might then have had the impetus to support radical movements, which may have affected the stability of the Gulf states and the ability of the current regimes to remain in power.

I would argue that the failure of the revolutionary push, and the survival of the current domestic status quo, is essential for the maintenance of the regional status quo. The current military-crony capitalist alliance of elites that use Egypt’s status as a pivotal state to extort rent has three effects: it helps in sustaining the regional status quo, and the current flow of capital and oil from the Arab world to core countries. Furthermore, it keeps Egypt as a peripheral country, since its advancement into a semi-peripheral status would involve a direct clash with core countries’ interests, most notably the United States, which will not tolerate the rise of another regional power, like Iran, that could contest its supremacy in the Arab world.

Finally, it delays the development of an Egyptian national bourgeoisie that could act as a competing centre of power in the Egyptian polity, acting as the back bone of a genuinely democratic system, and giving strength to the aspirations of nationalist forces that aim to extend their regional hegemony. 

In effect, one can argue that a large often neglected dimension of the Egyptian revolution is that it was a revolt against Egypt's peripheral status in the global system, aimed at bringing an end to this historical marginalisation.  

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