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Egypt: Down with the Coup! Long Live the Revolution!

The Military Coup that ended the rule of Mohammad Morsi, the first freely elected Egyptian President, is a most dangerous curve in the plot of the Arab Spring. Till now things were pretty clear. There were the forces of the old regime, resisting any democratic change in order to defend their privilege. On the other side there was a mass uprising with political forces of all colors calling for democracy.

Now, for the first time, the masses were split and many of the forces that participated in the revolutionary overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship teamed with the forces of the old regime to dissolve all the democratic institutions, the fruits of the revolution.

This obliges us to ask some very hard questions: What is the revolution? What are its goals? Can it still succeed? What is the way forward now? Trying to give answers as major events still unfold is not easy, but as many essential truths are masked by the smoke of war we can from some distance at least resume some of the lost honor of truth and reality, if not full revolutionary perspective.

A Coup is a Coup

It is always good, even at the time of major setbacks, to notice and celebrate small victories. For me that fact that our enemy lies to himself is a victory, because living in a faked reality is the choice of the weak. So when the United States refused to call the Coup a Coup it proved again how hollow is its claim to sponsor democracy and freedom. But the sting came with the position of the African Union – which denounced the Coup and automatically suspended Egypt. It is part of the new world order, where the old imperialist powers prove to be what they are – the enemies of the people – while the emerging states of the third world are taking democracy more seriously.

The Coup and the Revolution

A coup and a revolution are not mutually exclusive “ideas” or types of activity. Actually in the first surge of the Egyptian revolution, in the beginning of 2011, after mass demonstrations have shaken the dictatorship, it was the heads of the army that staged a court-coup to dispose Mubarak in order to save as much as possible of the old regime.

In 2011 the coup was staged to dislodge a regime that was basically a military dictatorship. It was a clear step toward democracy and it was welcomed by everybody. Now the coup is designed to topple an elected president, after the dissolution of the first freely elected parliament and it suspended the democratically adopted constitution.

But, in a sign that Egypt has gone a long way with the revolution, the army, while taking power by force, swears its loyalty to the revolution and the Egyptian people. Unlike 2011, the army avoids taking direct power in its own hands but appoints a top judge, Adly Mansour, as civilian president – noting that the old regime’s judges were best at keeping their positions after the revolution and played a leading role in undermining the new democracy.

Actually the coup in Egypt was not possible without the cooperation and support of big part of the revolutionary forces. This blog made a point of characterizing the revolution not by a political or social agenda but as the active intervention of the masses to change the political order. Many Egyptian people celebrated the coup when it was announced, and many generally democratic and progressive people were rejoiced in the Arab world and beyond. But take care: In the politics of the coup, the alliance between the revolutionary forces and the remnants of the old order is not even an equal partnership. The masses were mobilized to legitimize the move but all the keys of control were given to the representatives of the old order – and it is not an issue of political beliefs but the vested interests of the classes that were (and still are) plundering Egypt and keeping it and its people in poverty, servitude and backwardness for decades.

The Egyptian Political Divide

It is very hard to count people in demonstrations. All estimations from the organizers, the media and the police are always politically biased. It is much easier to count votes – but revolution is a very fluid state with people’s opinions and affiliations changing fast.

An additional reason for the volatility of the Egyptian public scene is the political vacuum that was left by a long period of tyranny – when only very small elite had any experience of political struggle. Religious movements had the advantage of keeping the connection with the masses through activity in the mosques but no real experience in governance or coalition building.

In the first election after the revolution – the Parliamentary elections that took place between November 28, 2011 and January 11, 2012 – the Muslim Brothers came out as the biggest party with 37.5% of the votes. With the (even more Islamic) Nour party’s 27.8% they formed a clear majority in the elected assembly. The forces of the old regime were prevented from taking part.

When the second elections took place – this time for the presidency – in May and June 2012, the political picture already seemed much different. In the first round the Brotherhood came first with 25% of the vote. The clear representative of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, that was now allowed in by Adly Mansour’s court, came a close second with almost 24%. Third place went to the mild leftist Hamadeen Sabahi with 21%. The next Islamic candidate came after him with 17%.

As a result the second round of the elections was a run-off between the Muslim Brothers’ Morsi and Shafik. Taking into account that all the other candidates were aligned with the revolution, you could expect Morsi to take over 70% of the vote. In the final count it was 51.73% for Morsi against 48.27% for Shafik.

Assuming that almost all the other Islamic vote went to Morsi, it means that the majority of secular pro-revolution voters preferred the clear representative of the old order over a Muslim Brother. And this was in 2012 before any of the true and alleged list of Morsi’s mistakes.

The Problem with the Brothers

At the beginning of the European Spring in 1848, Marx and Engels started “The Communist Manifesto” with the words: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”. To much the same effect, the Arab World, still in the beginning of its spring, is haunted by the spectre of Islamism. Marx and Engels conclusion was that “It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.” The Muslim Brothers, shaped by decades of persecution, would generally prefer to talk less and do more.

When the Russian Revolution in 1917 started as a mass democratic and social protest movement and toppled the Tsar in February, the Bolsheviks were not the biggest party but they were the best organized and had a clear idea what they want to achieve. Lenin knew he had a short window of opportunity to take control before a new bourgeois political class will establish its rule. In the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 he was fast to pass into law the “black distribution” – giving the poor peasants in every location the legitimacy of the revolution to independently take control of their land. Later the peasants fought to defend their land by saving the revolution.

The Brothers are the main organized party of the Arab revolution – but they are revolutionaries of a very different kind. If we judge by what they did when they had the chance to rule, they are trying not to rock the boat. They try to give assurances to imperialism. They think they can improve the economic situation simply by more honest, independent and professional management (which sounds likely, taking into account the wild corruption of the old regime). They try to neutralize the influence of the apparatus of the old regime by compromise and by democratic legitimacy.

This “we the good guys” approach to the democratic revolution faces several major obstacles, where every point of their strength becomes also a cause of vulnerability:

  1. Their image as the inevitable winners of the Arab Spring tends to unite all other parties against them, or at least to limit their influence, even before they reach real power.
  2. Their disciplined organization is feared by foes and allies alike.
  3. Their reliance on religious ideology alienates people of other religions, adherents of other tendencies of Islam and an influential liberal middle class – leaving them to fight for an a priori limited support base and making coalition building harder.
  4. Their remedy of gradual reform requires a long time and stable conditions to materialize. It proved a success in Turkey where a similar party took control in democratic elections in a relatively stable country. They seemed helpless and hapless in Egypt where they took control in the middle of political and economic crisis and where all other parties were unwilling to give them an opportunity to prove themselves.
  5. Their readiness to play by the rules of formal democracy is not a good substitute to the more essential basic work of confidence building, networking, bringing together allies and solving problems with rivals.

In the end, the problem with the brothers is not that they don’t stand in my or your standards, but when they don’t stand by their own standards. The Brothers will usually avoid a fight if it is not likely to be an assured win.

In Egypt 2011 they declared that they wouldn’t put a candidate for the presidency – probably because they were aware that winning elections was much easier than governing and that they don’t have the material conditions for implementing their program in government.

Even at the last moment before this week’s military coup, according to the testimony of Yasser Al-Za’atra in Al-Jazeera, the Brothers’ leadership was aware to the preparations for military coup and preferred that Morsi will agree to a referendum about early elections, which will stay within the limits of the democratic game. In the end internal differences prevented this last moment attempt to avoid a clash.

The Revolution must continue!

The limits of the political leaderships are clear… The biggest responsibility rests with the Leftist and Liberal leaderships that play to the hands of the old regime. Now the Brothers justly feel cheated of legitimately won power and their first response is to show that they can’t easily be shoved off.

Still the revolution is much bigger and more important than any political leadership. It is the movement of the Egyptian people to control their own lives and to assure their dignity and social rights. In my view, with the lack of a Leninist leadership that can unite the masses around a clear goal, there is no alternative to the patient building of dialog and understanding between all the sections of society that are interested in a democratic future for Egypt.