Egypt’s Clashing Conservatisms: Space for the Left

The Egyptian military’s recent moves to consolidate its power, by declaring martial law, dissolving parliament, and restricting the powers of the incoming president by, for example, granting themselves de facto independent power over their budget and defence policy, can be and have been read as a slow-moving coup, a completion of the counter-revolution that began in February 2011. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued their brief and cryptic communique number one on 10 February last year, announcing that they were in session, I tweeted that it was a coup. A year and a half later, I have the frankly depressing satisfaction of being right about this (AP among others made the same suggestion at the time): the generals are in charge.
On the other hand, there is alarm in some quarters, particularly among liberals in Egypt and on the right in the U.S. and Israel, that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to re-enact Khomeini’s hijacking of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
There can be little doubt that the dominant organized political forces in Egypt are these two conservative behemoths: on the one hand, the felool or ‘remnants’ of the old regime, represented above all by the military-industrial-intelligence complex and its allies in the judiciary and bureaucracy; on the other, the social conservative insurgents of the Brotherhood, allied rather uncertainly with the Salafists. Let’s call them the Burkeans and the Tea Partiers.
Does this mean that the hopes of the revolutionaries, and of the majority of Egyptians who voted for neither Brotherhood nor felool in the first round of the Presidential elections, were all for naught? No. Not yet, it doesn’t.
The social bases of support for the two conservative entities are strong. The mass of rural voters in the Delta seem to back felool due to the strength of the old National Democratic Party networks, while their Upper Egyptian counterparts back the Brotherhood, on the whole. Those who became wealthy under the Mubarak regime naturally have an interest in seeing some version of it continue or, at the very least, avoiding too wide-ranging an inquiry into corruption. The urban poor who came to rely on the Brotherhood’s social services when the state abandoned them are probably reasonably solid as a voting bloc.
Yet voting patterns in all the elections since Mubarak fell have shown broader diversity – a secular leftist nationalist came a strong third in the first round of the presidential election, with moderates also performing quite well. Visitors to Egypt since the revolution (including me) have found lively and ubiquitous political debate which is a fierce contrast to the moribund public sphere of the 1990s and early 2000s.
That national conversation, the very public-ness of political discussion is a very significant achievement of the revolution. Its foundations were built by activists over many years, gathering momentum with the Kefaya (‘enough!’) movement around the 2005 referendum on Mubarak’s continuing rule and picking up speed and power with the April 6 Movement, allying leftist middle class activists with deeply dissatisfied workers to shake the foundations of the former regime’s economic power.
The courage and carnival of Tahrir – the students, workers, activists, ultras (football/soccer fans) and some of the less conservative Brotherhood members – were the proximate cause of Mubarak’s downfall. The counter-revolution has been working since the first SCAF proclamation,and particularly effectively since the referendum of March 2011, to neutralize that revolutionary energy, to domesticate the Muslim Brotherhood, and to preserve as much as possible of the power and privilege that the military & intelligence organs and their allies had accrued in the Mubarak years.
Here‘s a great account of the key events over the past 16 months. I don’t always agree with Hossam, but I think this piece does well to end with him, a prominent voice associated with worker activism. Unlike Tunisia, where the UGTT has been a strong and reasonably independent voice for workers since independence and now acts as a counterbalance of a sort to En-Nahda’s conservatism, Egyptian workers have been poorly served for decades by corporatist unions and syndicates co-opted by Nasser’s party-state and its successors. Independent, organized unions are one of the few things that might keep the generals up at night, particularly where they can directly touch the economic interests of SCAF and its friends.
Building on the progress of the past few years toward a politically powerful workers’ movement in Egypt would be a very solid contribution to rescuing the revolution from the manoeuvrings of the generals. It might be the only way to get from here to democracy.

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