The Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s overthrow in January 2011 triggered massive street action by the peoples of the region. The course of this struggle and the direction it might take is still uncertain. Here I raise some questions to our friends in Egypt on the very difficult and challenging situation in which they find themselves.
Egypt is too important – for Africa and the region – to escape concern, even if things are too volatile and complex to understand, especially for one from outside the region. In this blog, I refer to our experiences in Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s. This is not by way of comparison (perhaps Pakistan or Turkey might be better for comparison). I bring in Uganda because the present situation in Egypt raises similar kinds of political, systemic, and programmatic issues as in Uganda 30-40 years ago. It is hard to believe that certain issues simply don’t go away – such as the hold of the Empire over the region and Africa, the unresolved “national question”, the failings of the political leadership, and the eternal danger of military interventions.
So here are some issues (or “puzzles”).
One puzzle relates to the ouster of the Morsi. Was the military action a coup or not? Is it simply a play on words, or are there deeper strategic and tactical calculations underlying it? And if so, for whom? We know that the armed overthrow of Morsi was backed by ‘Tamarod’ (rebellion) – 22 million signatures and millions of people on the street. There are times when a civilian regime is (or perceived to be) so dictatorial that its armed removal becomes a necessity. We understand that. In Uganda in 1972 we did not have millions on the street to support Amin’s coup but Obote’s ouster was, by and large, popular. In general, however, Africa’s experience is that military regimes that come to power stay in power, and for the civil population to oust them becomes even more difficult. This was the case in Uganda. Amin Dada came to power in 1972 and brutalized the population until he was overthrown in 1979 by the combined forces of the Tanzanian army and a small group of armed guerrillas from among Uganda’s underground movement.
The second puzzle is the class character of the leaders and rank and file members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Who are they? Is it a monolithic organisation? Some of our friends in Egypt tell us that the MB is a tool of the imperialists. Is this conjectural or based on evidence? Yes, the Empire has often used religion and religious organisations to divide and rule. There is evidence, for example, that in 1952 when Egyptian workers went on strikes the British intelligence used the Muslim Brotherhood – Jamiat-al-Ikhwan Muslimu – to beat up the workers and their communist sympathisers. The Americans were to use the same strategy – i.e. encourage extremist Muslim elements – to hit at the communist regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Empire has used the most reactionary atavistic throwbacks from the Islamic past to hit at third world progressive forces.
We know about these divide and rule imperial tactics from other parts of the former British Empire. During India’s freedom struggle in the 1930s, Gandhi was only too aware of this. In his ceaseless efforts (until his death) he tried to unite the Muslims and the Hindus to join forces against British Raj to the extent that he supported the resurrection of the Caliphate. Times change, but the Empire’s tactics don’t. Today, Al-Qaeda wants to bring Iraq, Syria and Lebanon together into a single caliphate – the “caliphate of the Levant”. Al-Qaeda gets support from Saudi Arabia which is a strong Western ally in the Middle East. The Saudis and the Egyptian MB are on opposite of the political divide in Egypt, but – and here is a crucial difference between the two – the MB has often in the past taken an anti-imperialist stance which the Saudis have never done.
The third puzzle relates to the character of “people power”. Who are the people? The 22 million who signed the petition for Morsi’s ouster are, obviously, not homogeneous. They come from different social classes. What proportion constitutes the middle classes and what proportion the working classes? The workers have had a raw deal in Egypt since their emergence with early industrialisation, first under the British, then under Nasser and Sadat, then Mubarak. Morsi – in the short period that he was in power – did not improve matters for them either. So it should not be surprising that large numbers of the working class might have joined forces with the middle classes, intellectuals, Coptic Church members (and indeed members of the upper classes, too, such as el Baradei) to oust Morsi. The question is: by joining these forces to put the military back in power, have the working classes gained any direct influence on the military or the state apparatus over their condition and future prospects?
This brings to the fore the fourth puzzle. What is the class character of the military in Egypt? We saw above that in 1952 the British used the army to stamp out workers’ strikes. Later, Nasser used the army to crack down on a landowning class that the British had left behind. By 1948 the communists as well as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) had created strong trade unions and rural support bases. Nasser used them both against the British, and then he used the army to crack down on both. The workers and the MB have been either marginalised or pushed underground. The military has played a pivotal role during both British imperial times and Nasser’s nationalist times – a “professional” army to service whatever regime is in state power.
The question is: has the Egyptian army changed its character over time? Has it become a “class” in its own right – objectively and self-consciously? Of course the army is not homogeneous. The rank and file of all armies in the world usually consists of sons of poor peasants and workers. In Uganda, Amin – a lumpen himself – used the ordinary soldiers to take over power from the elite corps. But in contrast to Uganda, the army elite in Egypt – educated and trained in the USA over decades – are now a privileged class that own property and businesses, along with a huge bureaucracy that benefitted from Nasser’s nationalisations. They are on the boards of parastatals, and they receive billions of dollars worth of weapons and cash from the United Sates. So they have a vested interest in holding on to their power and privilege. They are a class in state power. They rule for themselves, yes, but they also rule for broader imperial interests in the region. They do have contradictions with the US. (Israel too has contradictions with the US). But these are secondary contradictions when the Egyptian army elite are forced to defend their class interests against the Muslim Brotherhood, the “socialists” and the workers.
We are told that Morsi aborted the June 2012 Revolution, ushered in formal electoralism, introduced Sharia Law, and an authoritarian style of governance. This article is not an endorsement of these actions or a defence of Morsi. But is there evidence that he is a pawn of the Empire in the region? And is the present military rule any better? Above all, one must make a distinction between a “state or class apparatus” (the army) and a “movement” (MB). Like the workers’ movement, the MB is also a movement with its own agenda. The question is: can they, despite their differences, join forces to fight against the Empire and its manipulations in Egypt and the region? We must remember that the MB is not a “socialist” movement. It cannot be judged from socialist principles. It has its own agenda, and this varies from country to country – from Somalia, to the Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt.
This raises political, as well as programmatic, issues whose significance can be more fully understood in the context of the fifth issue – the “systemic” issue.
This relates to the larger issue that I touched on earlier. Why, for example, have the Saudis backed the fall of Morsi? The Saudis, with their oil billions, are a major player in the region. They supply arms to Al Qaida forces in Syria, Iraq and in the region as a whole. The Sunni-Shia rift has long-time and deep historical roots, but since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran it has taken an entirely new dimension. Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting proxy wars in the region. This is generally known. What is less clear is the role the US and Israel are playing in all this. Recent apparent thaw in the relations between the US and Iran over the nuclear issue indicates that there might be a slight shift in US position over Iran. But Obama cannot overlook the Israeli factor both for domestic and regional and global geo-political reasons. Israel too, in alliance with Saudi Arabia, is fighting proxy wars in the region for its own reasons. By encouraging the Arabs to fight one another, and by adding to the instability in the region, Israel can continue with its relentless colonisation of Palestine and isolation of Gaza. Who is going to oppose them?
The dynamics of national, regional and global politics are too complex to analyse in a short blog. My purpose is to raise some questions. During our days in the struggle against the British-Israeli imposed dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda (the British-Israeli role can now be proven from recent records in the British archives) we were faced with the question: Who is the immediate enemy? The academic political activists were divided on this issue. But it was – partly – a false debate. Imperialism was both the immediate and the long term real enemy of the people of Uganda: Amin was a surrogate used by the British to protect their economic and geo-political interests in the region and in Africa.
The “national question” for Egypt is an enduring political and programmatic challenge to all progressive forces in the country … and to those outside who are in solidarity with the people of Egypt.