KP: The revolutionary events are still unfolding. Whether it becomes a fully-fledged revolution or not remains to be seen. The US refuses to acknowledge a military coup has happened. The Egyptian military is using lethal violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei deplored the violence, but he didn’t resign. What does this indicate about ElBaradei and also about the military? How should progressivist revolutionaries respond? Should the intervention of the military ever have been embraced by progressivists?
BJS: To answer your premise, we need to look at the Egyptian situation from historical angles. Throughout world history, there have been countless mass upheavals demanding social change, but nothing has ever neared the magnitude of the two recent Egyptian mass upheavals against the Mubarak regime first, and then against Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. Although we, generically, speak of Egyptian revolutions and have every reason to name them so, can we really call them revolutions and to what extent?
History to the rescue: take, for example, the uprising of the British colonies in North America (excluding Canada) against the British crown. Was there a revolution? I think the answer could be a conditional yes and only to a certain degree, because the British citizens (then called subjects) living in those colonies became intolerant of how London treated them and all tax burden it imposed on them. During the years of rebellion before achieving independence, the colonists outlined what they wanted to do with their life through — and here is the point — military elites that were successively mixed with civilian personalities.
I said to a certain extent, because while the colonists as a whole had no idea how to design their future system, the elites had a precise vision. They opted for a republican system, but copied and perpetuated many of their motherland’s political (the two-party system), economic, legislative philosophies and common laws, and above all, they maintained and amplified on its colonialistic practices, expansionist mentality, and supremacist beliefs that eventually led to the near extermination of the Original Peoples and to the slavery of Africans.
On this account, calling the uprising leading to the establishment of the United States as a revolution is arguably incorrect. Accordingly, I view it as a successful insurgency that put in place new experiments in rotating self-government and other practices. In the American economic model that followed, British capitalism and cultural patterns continued to live in the new country. A revolutionary severance with the origin, therefore, never happened.
Another example is the French Revolution that set the precedent for all revolutions that came afterwards. Although the French and American uprisings were almost contemporaneous, they were different. From Jacobins and their idea of radical change to Robespierre and his ideology of economic and political reforms and that of Terror to impose them, not only derailed the spirit of the revolution as symbolized by the takeover of the Bastille, but it conditioned many future revolutionaries around the world in that it made revolutionary violence synonym with change. Was the French uprising a revolution? Yes. Besides changing the political system, it produced vast reforms in the economic and juridical systems, as well as in cultural and philosophical advancement that greatly departed from old practices.
The third example is the Bolshevik uprising in Russia that lasted a few years before achieving political power. Wars (particularly WWI), slow industrialization, backward mixed economy, and poverty lead to a new type of mass upheaval that was led, this time, not by people as a mass (French and Egyptian examples) or by the military but by intellectual-ideological elites. These elites had not only turned the previous system upside down, but also brought radical changes in all spheres of society and its mode of production. Was that uprising a revolution? Certainly — it changed all structures of the Russian society starting with the political system first.
With this in mind, let’s discuss the two Egyptian uprisings in context. First, did the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011 fit any of the prototypes I just mentioned? No. In truth, that uprising skips classification, and in a sense, it is an anomaly in the annals of revolutions. Based on its limited objectives — the removal of Mubarak and stopping him from giving Egypt as inheritance to his son Jamal, justice, freedom, and decent living.
However, considering its colossal omnipresence across Egypt, I would characterize it in many ways. Either it was a revolution without revolutionary underlayment, or passionate uprising with only natural demands for better living, or perhaps it was the only means remaining for an oppressed nation to show that enough was enough to a regime that was all dead and mummified but still not wanting to give up. Beyond that, it cannot be qualified as a revolution because it lacked the essential revolutionary ingredients; it lacked radical or revolutionary political platforms; and it lacked the specific vision for the shape of things to come, but more important, it lacked political organizers.
This explains why the United States, the Egyptian military, and the Muslim Brothers found it so easy to confine the objective of the first mass upheaval just to the removal of a dictatorial head of state (with American blessing and support), but to leave, as I stated earlier, the structures of the Mubarak regime intact.
Should we consider the uprising that brought Morsi down as revolution? My view is still unchanged. Yes that we witnessed an uprising whose magnitude exceeded the one that uprooted Mubarak and his regime, but the conditions to qualify it as a revolutionary change are still unresolved and waiting for more debate.
At this point of Egyptian history, it’s entirely irrelevant how the United States defines the new Egyptian revolution. It’s been said that the U.S. does not want to see elected governments overthrown by their own military establishment. This is rubbish, and it’s reminiscent of the United States issuing its annual reports on human rights abuses by world states although no other state could ever surpass the abuse and death the U.S. is inflicting upon numerous countries around the world.
Here is a simple equation to clarify the U.S. duplicity. The U.S. considered Mubarak an elected president. Now, an uprising exploded against Mubarak, and the Egyptian military, siding with the people for its own reasons, moved to remove him from power. The U.S., for its own calculations, changed tone and began calling Mubarak “dictator” thus paving the way to use their definition of what constitutes or not a military coup d’état. In essence, for expediency, the U.S. decided to “consider” the events of 2011 as legitimate demand sought by the people — yeah, now we have to depend on U.S. imperialism to define for us what revolutions are and if they are acceptable to them or not!
Hold on, here comes another mass uprising, this time against their new “partner” in Cairo who promised not to touch the Camp David Accords, and the same military establishment that removed Mubarak, moved again and removed Morsi. What does the U.S. do? It pulls its daisy of usual definitions: is it a coup, it’s not a coup, is it a coup …
The way out of this bogus dilemma was easy. The U.S. instructs its many clients in the African Union to declare that what happened in Egypt was not a coup, and then following suit, it too declares that what happened was not a coup. To prove its view, it declares that it will continue its aid to Egypt and decides to send John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Republican senators known for their zealous Zionism, to threaten the new rulers of Egypt to abide by the American conditions in order to continue receiving military aid. (As per the Camp David Accords, the U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion annually, of which $1.3 billion is military aid. Since it’s a known fact that the Egyptian army and military personnel depend on the U.S. for this type of aid, then the implication that the U.S. is using it to blackmail Egypt is credible.
Regarding the issue of the ongoing violence on Egyptian streets, the situation is, of course, explosive for multiple reasons. For the Muslim Brothers it’s a catastrophe to give up power after seeking it for over 80 years, especially knowing they got it in an election. The military and the people are determined to deny them a second chance. As a result, violence ensued (thus far over 300 people killed and 2000 wounded) and each party accuses the other of initiating it. What’s clear though, with the ongoing ultimatum from the military to evacuate the streets or else, the outcome of any operation would be frightening at best.
On other issues, expecting that ElBaradei resign is not something that we’d expect, since the entire new political structures are fluid and uncertain and taking responsibility is far from anyone’s mind. (Arab leaders of all extractions and from all epochs never take responsibility for anything. There’s an exception though: Nasser took responsibility for the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war with Israel.)
As for the ultimatum to the Muslim Brothers: this is a very dangerous game that some may find soothing and rewarding considering all misdeeds and mistakes committed by the Brothers and Morsi during their first year of power. But the Muslim Brothers are an integral part of the Egyptian society and its intellectual fabric, and forcing them to accept new covenants and new realities requires infinite patience, negotiation, and mutual concessions. (Talking about negotiation, I should remember that the imperialist West “who loves Egypt so much” sent Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the European Commission, to mediate between the new rulers of Egypt and the Muslim Brothers. The fact is mediation is not in Ashton’s agenda. Her mission is plain: to ensure that whoever emerges strongest from the ongoing standoff, will conform, no matter what, to the diktat of the West, the U.S., and Israel.)
On the other hand, if the Muslim Brothers decide to continue the struggle (regardless of potential death, destruction, and the possibility of seeing Egypt descend into civil war) in order to recover their lost power, then the prospects would be simply frightening.
As for the military, the uprising of June 30, gave them unprecedented support to the point that now most Egyptians consider them heroes and nationalists, and some went as far as depicting Al-Sissy, as the new Nasser, and some media organs are suggesting that he drop his military uniform to run for president. Here again, popular sentimentalism looking for a charismatic leader to get them out of the country’s mess is exposing Egypt to grave danger since not even Egyptian progressivists and revolutionary forces are looking behind the façade of the military to see their true colors: a tool of U.S. policy and a defender of Israel. I do not nourish any illusion on the overnight conversion of the Egyptian army from its submissive role to Mubarak, Sadat, and the West, to become a champion for the masses and defender of their freedom and dignity.
When talking about Egyptian progressive forces and their role in the struggle for a new free, and independent Egypt, we must investigate the aims of all other forces that are trying to shape its future too (Muslim Brothers, the military, Mubarak’s leftovers, the United states, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.). The balance can tip in favor of the progressive forces only if the terms of the struggle and its objectives are defended from political adulterations and kept as a constant reminder that when considering the future of Egypt, compromising with reactionary and imperialist forces is the worst thing anyone can do.
Notwithstanding their strength and presence, Egyptian progressivists may not appear in the way Western progressivists want them to be. Although a humanistic agenda unifies them, the values that diverse progressivists hold depend largely on their objectives, national realities, and internationalist outlook. Ideating a common bond or association among all progressivists of the world is always possible as long as local realities are acknowledged.
To recap, I think that in today’s Egypt there are two forces of history working to shape its future: the first are the Masses in their evolving revolutionary fervor, and the other are the forces of reaction and imperialism. Other forces with differing humanistic and progressive agenda do exist and could even be large, but their roles, for now, are shadowed by a much larger event — how to consolidate the small achievements thus far won.
KP: Where you see the revolution heading?
BJS: Given the complex situation whereby diverse forces are pulling and pushing Egypt from all directions, I can only give a few speculations. Any of the following scenarios is possible:
- The army will maintain its grip on power while (1) appearing to execute the people’s will, (2) keeping a civilian administration as a façade for as long as possible to shape the outcome of the promised elections. One implication of such an order is how the military would respond to U.S. provocation and blackmail if their respective agenda were to collide. If the military establishment were to reject the American aid and pursue an independent nationalist course from the U.S. and Israel, then this modus operandi may work for as long as reforms are enacted and a return to the building of a new Egyptian democracy begins. Cancelling U.S. military aid would automatically entail the revision or even the annulment of the Camp David Accords. Would Israel then attack Egypt for the abrogation of the accords?
- The Army, with the pro-American camp: Baradei, Fahmi, and others, will continue to play the role of the “reformers-in-charge”, while in reality will work to consolidate the new structures of power by integrating elements of the Mubarak regime to ingratiate itself to the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and domestic capitalists. Eventually, the promised election may seal this deal, since the masses could be induced to reprise their lives after two and a half years of turmoil. In this scenario, there would be two outcomes: the Egyptian masses would halt either their protests if their conditions improve; or another tsunami mass protest will be in the brewing since the game of the military is exposed and change would be more elusive than ever. This latter hypothesis is somewhat difficult to predict due to the unclear nature of the forces that came to be known as “Insurrection” that now is dominating the scene. If this movement is genuinely revolutionary, then I could foresee such possibility. If, on the other hand, it will turn out to be manipulated or controlled by other forces whose identity is still unknown, then we should expect the worse. (It’s still unsettling for me that the Insurrection’s leaders designated Baradei to negotiate on their behalf with the military prior to removing Morsi from power. Why El-Baradei especially knowing his background and ties to Washington? Besides, it is true that the Insurrection movement was that force that gathered over 22 million signatures calling on Morsi to resign and call for new elections. Still, who designated or elected them to speak on behalf the millions who rose against Morsi?
- The Army will respect its promise and will relinquish power after the new elections. If this will happen, then this is a good start. However, if the Army does that because it has already shaped the election in a way to favor a comeback of Egypt’s traditional ruling elites from Sadat until now, then the masses have lost for the second time.
- If in the interim, the Muslim Brothers would desist from their efforts to regain power and would integrate in the new establishment, one of the previous speculations could have a solid ground to materialize.
- But, if the Muslim Brothers decide to turn Egypt into a battleground to regain power, then none of the above predictions will happen, while the future of Egypt will hang on who will win the confrontation. If this happens, it would be a wild fiesta for Israel and the United States.