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The weakness of the Egyptian revolutionary movement

The weaknesses of the revolutionary movement are the main reason for the massacres of August 14. We need to understand these to remedy the dire situation that Egypt is currently facing. 

Maged Mandour
19 August 2013
Poster of Egypt's ousted president

Poster of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi hangs from a bridge in the smoke. Credit: Demotix/Khaled. All rights reservedThe massacres that took place in Cairo on August 14 are a watershed in the Egyptian Revolution. Some might argue, convincingly, that it marks the end of the January 25 Revolution and a reassertion of the primacy of the Egyptian Military.

During the past two and a half years, the revolutionary movement was not able to assert its dominance. At best it acted as king maker, tipping the balance of power between the different political forces, most vividly during the second round of the Presidential election, when they tipped the scale in favour of the now deposed President Morsi.

The revolutionary movement was not strong enough to take over the apparatus of the state, using this apparatus to achieve its revolutionary goals. If it had done so, the course of the Egyptian Revolution would have been a completely different. This movement was able to field millions into the streets of Egypt; however, it was never able to reach power. Why not?

In his seminal work, the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore identified a strong bourgeois class as a pre-requisite for the development of a liberal democratic system. He concluded his book with his famous quote, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy”. When one looks at the Egyptian economy and the nature of the Egyptian bourgeoisie one can see that it has a parasitic and crony nature. The Egyptian economy is dominated by the military, the size of military economic activity is hard to assess, some experts estimating it at as much as 40% of the GDP. This economic domination inhibits the process of development of a competitive national bourgeoisie.

The military has an unfair competitive advantage, which is comprised of its access to cheap labour through the use of conscripts, access to cheap credit through the national banks, and finally the advantage of political power. For example, the military is the largest land owner in the country, it has control over public land under the rubric of national security and it has control over whom this land is sold to. It is important to note that this economic activity is not subject to taxation and is also not subject to any form of civilian oversight. The Egyptian military is an independent power centre heavily penetrating the state.

This creates a situation where the military uses its economic empire to cultivate the right kind of bourgeois, the crony businessman, the kind that is loyal to the status quo. In other words, the military uses its patronage network to develop businessmen that have close ties to the state and that owe their wealth to appropriation of public funds rather than competitive economic activity. The ruling party under Mubarak, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was cultivated with what can be called crony capitalists. Those men came to dominate many posts in the Egyptian state and acted as a junior civilian partner to the ruling military caste. They became an integral part of the regime.

This means that the revolutionary movement lacks an independent elite power base that can lead the struggle against the military. Unlike other major revolutions, like the Iranian revolution for example, where the bazaar and the religious establishment acted as an independent economic power centre to counter the monarchy and the military, the Egyptian bourgeoisie are closely connected to the state, making such opposition impossible. In Egypt there is no equivalent to the third estate, a conglomeration of the bourgeoisie and other members of society. Parallels can be drawn to the original spring time of the people, in 1848, where the revolutionary movement had no or little elite support and so failed to consolidate their gains.

There is also an important international dimension that should not be overlooked. Egypt is considered by many experts to be a rentier state. This means that Egypt is relying on strategic rents as a primary source of income. The ruling class alliance has been using Egypt’s strategic importance and its position as a pivotal state in the region to procure a copious amount of aid and loans. This means that the Egyptian State does not need to rely on tax collection as a source of income. This creates a situation that isolates the Egyptian regime, controlled by the military, from the domestic pressures and possible revolutionary situations that can develop from a fiscal crisis.

A historical comparison may be useful; one of the main drivers of the French Revolution was the fiscal crisis that faced the French state, which forced the monarchy to ask for additional taxes to be collected from the third estate. This crisis created a revolutionary moment that was exploited by the third estate to launch the first wave of the French Revolution. A similar situation could not occur in Egypt. This situation frees the hand of the Egyptian state in terms of repression, as it can rely on outside powers for both financial and political support. This manifested itself in the relatively muted international response to the massacres of August 14. The importance of the Egyptian military as a western ally far outweighs any human rights concerns. In more practical terms, this means that insurrectionary tactics like civil disobedience and strikes have a weaker effect on the Egyptian state. One needs to remember that the Iranian Revolution succeeded when the strikes reached the oil sector and paralyzed the country’s economy, reducing the main source of income of the Iranian state to a mere trickle.

Another important factor that affected the result of the revolution is the lack of ideological hegemony of the revolutionary movement. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, argued in his innovative study of the role of intellectuals, civil society and political society, that in order for a class to come to power it needs first to create an ideological base for its hegemony. This means that the struggle begins in the realm of civil society and once this is won to new ideas, relationships and alliances, the struggle can move on to an attack on the system. He identified the role of intellectuals in the revolutionary struggle as pivotal to the success of any revolutionary movement. Those intellectuals need to be organically connected to the masses so that they are able to win a wider vision of the future, before the revolutionary struggle commences. Civil society is identified as the terrain of revolutionary struggle where the ideological base of the state is constructed and de-constructed. The ideological base of the current order has to be destroyed before the revolutionary movement can take control over the state.

Look at Egypt today. Historically, the realm of civil society has been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which acted as an illiberal opposition. In other words, it acted in tacit agreement with the regime, to “crowd out” any potentially dangerous movement, especially the Egyptian left and the Nasserists. This created a bulwark against the infiltration and dissemination of truly revolutionary ideas into society, which challenged the status quo. The only opposition that could develop was a spontaneous rejectionist movement that is unable to provide a vision or an ideological framework - to act as a base for forming alliances with other classes. This lack of ideological leadership also made unity among the different revolutionary factions more difficult. There was no clear revolutionary project. Egypt is missing a man like Ali Shariati, the Iranian intellectual who articulated the ideological basis of the Iranian Revolution, and who died shortly before it erupted.

After the crackdown on August 14, the Egyptian revolutionary movement is facing a dire situation. The polarized political situation and securitized climate creates support for extra-legal measures. The military seems to have the upper hand, with popular support to crack down on the Brotherhood; this crackdown can easily extend to members of the revolutionary movement itself. As violence escalates, the support for the military will increase as well. Any possible leaders of the movement have been coopted, making any resistance sporadic and unorganized. What can be done?

The military seems to have the upper hand in the short-medium term; however this situation will not last. The nature of civil society has now changed; the collapse of the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood should open up civil society for contending forces. The struggle in the realm of civil society will be directly against the military and those who are allied with it. This might open up the path for the development of the necessary intellectual leadership needed for the success of a revolutionary movement.

Increased revolutionary pressure might be able to jeopardize the international revenue that Egypt has been receiving as a rentier state, effectively cutting off the lifeline of the regime; loans will not flow to a country in the midst of a revolutionary crisis. But of course there will not be mass support for a revolutionary movement that would cut off the life-line of the state unless another clear vision has won the struggle in civil society, that can realistically the many different constituencies that sacrifices are necessary, and that all the current loans and the aid are for the benefit of the ruling classes rather than a broad section of society. The opposition to the current IMF loan is a beginning.

One of the platforms for struggle in civil society could be to look more closely at the aid to Egypt’s military and a campaign for taxation of that vast military empire, a powerful message. This increased pressure and growing consciousness can spread to the military establishment itself, as most army officers are middle class Egyptians, the same class that has been leading the revolution, conceivably causing cracks in the ruling coalition. The situation is dire but not hopeless.

To those commenters who say that there is no foreseeable alternative to the stranglehold of the military on Egypt, they may be basing their judgment either on the experience of Algeria, where the radicalization of the Islamists was severe, leaving the middle class with the stark choice that was no choice at all between an extreme form of Islamist rule or military rule, or on Turkey where the military has periodically intervened in politics.  Compared to the Algerian scenario one can argue that, historically, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has rejected violence even when subjected to persecution, so that there is a chance that their radicalization, if it occurs, will be limited and that it will be led by more extreme splinter groups. This is what happened during the Nasser era. In short, the Egyptian Islamists are not the Algerian Islamists and Egypt is not Algeria. The Egyptian middle classes may not be confined to the same choice. Although the military is trying to frame it is as such.

In the case of Turkey, the coup of 1980 eventually - ‘in the long term’- produced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been able to get the military out of politics. There is a good chance that Egypt would go the way of Turkey rather than Algeria. It depends on two crucial elements among many: on the response of Egypt’s Brotherhood to the current crisis, their ability to re-create themselves, and the degree of consciousness of the Egyptian middle class. Chinks in the armour of the military might very well appear.

In the end the argument rests on the notion that there is a profound clash of class interests that cannot be hidden from view by developing a false consciousness, making a clash sooner or later inevitable. The argument presented here is not that the revolutionary movement will be able to dismantle the military state, but that Egypt will be subject to major disturbances for years to come. This is because the Egyptian political order is a non-hegemonic order, ruled by force and as such can only be subject to social upheaval.

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