Egypt’s Revolution: Between The Streets And The Army

Egypt’s revolution will never be complete until the authoritarian neoliberal state is finally dismantled. Only the power of the streets can do this – Published on, by Jerome Roos, July 2, 2013.

… The Clash of Coalitions:

The main lesson we can draw from this historic episode is that revolutions are never clean-cut events undertaken by an easily-identifiable revolutionary subject, but always complex processes of inherently chaotic social struggle in which different elite factions vie for power and legitimacy, with the revolutionary multitude itself often caught in between them, at times allying itself with one side or another. 

Revolutions are almost always made by complex coalitions, and such coalitions may shift dramatically over time, partly out of ideological differences but mostly as a result of diverging economic interests. The Egyptian Revolution is no different in this respect.

For some, this inherently chaotic situation is a reason to urge restraint. The latest editorial pieces by The Guardian are particularly reactionary in this regard. First, the paper argued that the revolution is “on the brink of self-destruction” as a result of internecine struggles; then it urged protesters to exercise the “wisdom of the street” and demobilize in order to focus on meaningful economic reform first and the revolution’s promises of social justice and real democracy later; now its Middle East editor Ian Black writes that, “for all the drama, sacrifices and high-flown aspirations of the Egyptian revolution, the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power.”

Such media commentaries are not only riven with reformist fear but also hopelessly simplistic in their analysis of the extant social forces and the complex power struggles going on between them. While there is clearly a moment of truth in the statement that the army remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt, it also needs to be observed that the army is far from omnipotent. It knows it cannot rule by itself and is therefore bound to join one coalition or another. In the end, the army remains utterly dependent on three critical power resources:

The $1.3 billion in military aid it receives from the US every year (and therefore continued US approval of its actions, which in turn hinges crucially upon the army’s commitment to the Camp David Peace Accords);
The “privileged position” it derives from the economic empire it has built up over the decades, which is deeply integrated into the US military-industrial complex and which is being harmed significantly by investor fears over continued social unrest);
The popular legitimacy that can only be provided by a sense of calm in the streets.
Clearly, these critical power resources of the Egyptian military stand in constant conflict with one another. The army’s need for popular legitimacy constantly runs up against the elite’s continued pandering to US and Israeli interests, as well as the enormous wealth its leadership has acquired over the decades. This is why the army constantly needs to radiate an aura of patriotism that claims to align the military command with the wishes of the people and the goals of the revolution; even if these wishes and goals are in many way in direct opposition to the army’s social dominance and its unaccountable “autonomous” role within the state apparatus.

The Power of the Streets:

It is one thing to claim that the army is the ultimate arbiter of power; it is quite another to recognize that the streets have become a power-unto-itself in the contemporary political constellation in Egypt. It is easy (and convenient) to forget that the 1,5-year rule of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) following Mubarak’s ouster was itself driven out by social rebellion over the army’s brutal practices of torture and repression, its illegitimate influence over state institutions, and its enormous privileges in terms of economic wealth and power. The SCAF realized that its rule was eroding its base of popular legitimacy, which in turn threatened its economic interests. In order to preserve its position of social dominance, therefore, it called elections knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood would win, and that the military command would have to enter into an uneasy coalition combining the secular army’s privileged political and economic position with the cultural hegemony of Islamism.

But the deepening economic crisis meant that even a heavy dose of Islamist rhetoric could not maintain a stable hegemony. The state’s fiscal and monetary position rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the 2011 uprising, with the Central Bank’s reserves depleting, interest rates on sovereign debt spiking up, and foreign exchange shortages feeding into currency depreciation and rising prices of crucial imports like food and fuel. Recent months have witnessed vast fuel shortages, which clearly hit the poorest hardest. This has caused even religious Egyptians who initially supported the Muslim Brotherhood to turn their backs on Morsi and join the Rebellion campaign that kick-started the ongoing second uprising. The army now once again finds itself in a situation where the legitimacy upon which its privileged position depends is being eroded by the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood. It simply had to shift sides.

What we are witnessing, therefore, is not so much a military coup as an internal rearrangement between different elite factions. While the Brotherhood was hoping to create a Muslim-led ruling class in the vein of Erdogan’s Islamic neoliberalism in Turkey, the leadership of the army still hopes to preserve the privileges it obtained under three successive military dictatorships from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. In this game of clashing and constantly shifting coalitions, a military-dominated government is unlikely. The military knows that neither the streets nor the US will let it rule alone. To preserve its privileged position, it will probably try to enter into a coalition with its logical ideological ally: the secular opposition, likely to be led by Mohamed El-Baradei. The opposition itself, however, remains poorly organized and thoroughly divided. It is therefore unlikely that a new round of elections or even a technocratic transition government will do much to stabilize the crisis-ridden Egyptian state.

Ultimately, this crisis cannot be successfully resolved until the authoritarian neoliberal state that was built up by Mubarak in collaboration with global capital, the IMF and successive US governments, is fully dismantled. However complex and fraught with obstacles this process may be, the engine behind the revolution is now unmistakable: without the power of the streets, Egypt would continue to be ruled by authoritarian madmen, whether their names are Mubarak, Morsi or the Military. If the state and the elites who control it are forced to move, they do so not out of voluntary will but because yet another grassroots rebellion forces them to. As Comrades from Cairo just wrote in an open letter published by ROAR, what Egypt now needs is not the fall of another president or regime — but the fall of the system as such. Only the fearless and continued struggle of the streets can bring this revolution to a successful conclusion.
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