Some thoughts on the Egyptian presidential runoff

The following are a rough series of thoughts on the Egyptian presidential race, currently a runoff between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and former Mubarak minister Ahmed Shafiq. It is a response to my comrade Alan Maass’ article “Egypt’s election dead end” in Socialist Worker, which critiques the position taken by the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists in their statement of Tuesday supporting a united front of revolutionaries with the Brotherhood while calling on them to declare their support for certain demands. I am writing a letter into SW on the subject, but space demands require that I try to pare it down somewhat. For the sake of debate I post this rough version here:

Dear SW,

Thank you for Alan Maass’ insightful commentary on the presidential runoff in Egypt. The revolution in Egypt seems to have reached perhaps its most important juncture since the uprising of January 25th last year, and it is more important than ever for those of us outside Egypt to understand and discuss the developments in that country.

What I would like to reply to is Alan’s disagreement with the strategy of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists (RS) – who in a recent statement called for a vote for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, against Mubarak’s former minister Ahmed Shafiq.

Alan argues that the RS’ “implicit support” of Morsi is incorrect because of (a) the Brotherhood’s commitment to neoliberalism and conservative Islamist policies (b) that their winning the presidential office in addition to their strength in parliament will aid them as against the revolutionary forces, which leads to (c) that support for the “lesser evil” against Shafiq will give cover to the “greater evil” among the Islamists and the military.

All of these points, while correct on their face, I believe do not represent the best concrete analysis of prospects for the Egyptian revolution at its current stage. I will take them on one by one, and then explain why I agree with the substance of the RS’ statement.

Alan writes that “in some ways [the Brotherhood] is an even more enthusiastic supporter of free market policies” than the old regime, as it supports negotiations with the IMF and opposes the struggles of Egyptian workers which gave much weight to the revolution. This is true. I believe that when the Brotherhood tries to negotiate with the IMF or to break strikes, the comrades of the RS will be on the front lines fighting against them, as any real socialist must.

Similarly for the Brotherhood’s conservative Islamic policies. As Alan points out, Morsi opposes the office of the president being open to women and non-Muslims. Previously they were allied with more extreme Salafi Islamist groups, which have benefited greatly in the current period by the Brotherhood’s own conservative message. Any real socialist in Egypt will resist attempts by whatever group to impose Islamic law on the country, including most importantly discrimination against women and Christians.

This should not blind us, however, from noting that the Muslim Brotherhood is a much different force than other Islamist movements in the Middle East. There is a world of difference, for example, between the Brotherhood and the Shia revivalists under Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran who coopted a popular revolution into an oppressive clerical regime. I do not believe that Alan thinks the Brotherhood are the same as Khomeini or the Salafis for instance. But it is important to understand that the Brotherhood represents generally a more moderate form of Islamism. Its leaders seek a quasi-hegemonic status within the framework of an electoral democracy – comparable to the role of the ruling AKP in Turkey – rather than an Iran-style theocracy or Saudi-style oligarchy.

Making this distinction is crucial because it helps us to understand the role of the Brotherhood in its fraught relationship with the Egyptian military. In a statement which Alan quotes favorably, the RS note that both the Brotherhood and the military’s “fear of the third force (the masses who have an interest in deepening the revolution on a political and social level) is much greater than their differences over how to divide the political spoils between them.”

I believe this statement to be perfectly correct. However, noting the comparably small differences between the Brotherhood and the military versus both groups and the revolutionary masses should not stop us from realizing that great differences indeed do exist between them.

In the first place, the Muslim Brotherhood is a deeply contradictory political formation. The conservatism of its leadership is in stark contrast to its mass base among the youth, workers, urban poor and middle class, who turned out in large numbers for the revolution despite their leaders standoffish attitude to the uprising against Mubarak. The Brotherhood has already suffered several left-wing splits, including the candidacy of Abdoul Fotouh, recognized as a revolutionary candidate for president.

The RS has worked with the Brotherhood youth on the basis of a united front against state repression both before and since the revolution. Further united front work, which I believe can include a campaign of highly critical support for the Brotherhood candidate on the basis of advancing the revolution, may help to accelerate the growing split between the Brotherhood’s mass base and its leadership. This will depend, of course, on revolutionaries articulating firmly their critiques of Morsi and the Brotherhood, which I believe were set out in their statement on the elections.

Alan acknowledges these things about the Brotherhood, but argues that they are unimportant because “the Brotherhood would rely on a representative of the old apparatus–if not Shafiq, then someone very much like him” to control the military, leading to just as much repression as under Shafiq himself.

I do not believe this is entirely correct. In the first place, the leadership of the Brotherhood, despite their reactionary policies, has a direct interest in preserving gains of the revolution such as political democracy and an end to state repression, which have allowed them to operate freely and assume their status as the largest political force in Egypt. This is what has led them into intense conflicts with the military – which, as the RS correctly pointed out, are contests to divide political spoils.

The leadership of the Brotherhood seeks uncontested political hegemony in Egypt, the same thing that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seek to preserve for themselves. While their differences are negligible from the point of view of the Egyptian masses, the fact that they are in conflict with each other over power in the state hierarchy gives those same masses – most importantly the revolutionary element in them – time and space to organize in order to advance the demands of the revolution against both.

In contrast, Shafiq is very much the man of the SCAF and the counterrevolution. As a former minister of Mubarak, his victory would represent the immediate reconstitution of the old regime, with all the attending repercussions for the left and the working class – in other words, the prospect of an immediate end to the revolution. He has made this clear by his vow to end “disturbances” within 24 hours after taking office. As a former military man, he has the connections and will to make this a reality. It is not clear at all to me that Morsi would behave the same way as president.

Alan writes that a vote for Morsi as a “lesser evil” is dangerous because “of the very real danger that the lesser evil often paves the way for the greater evil,” an argument that frequent readers of SW will most likely be familiar with. I would argue however that the situation in Egypt, a country passing through a revolutionary process, is substantially different from the situation in which socialists normally apply this logic – a country such as the United States where we face the choice between two candidates of deeply entrenched political parties of capitalist and imperialist interests, this year Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

It makes a concrete difference in Egypt whether revolutionaries have the freedom to agitate, educate and organize tomorrow or are carted off to prison as they were under Mubarak. It makes a concrete difference whether workers can continue to organize independent unions and strike or will be crushed with army rifles. If Morsi wins, the day after the runoff Egyptian workers and revolutionaries will wake up with their freedoms still in place, not because Morsi is any less despicable in the end than Shafiq, but because his party is in conflict with the military right now and he is under pressure from his base.

Framing the choice between Morsi and Shafiq as lesser evil and greater evil, as we typically understand that choice, simply does not work. Egyptians have a choice between a state apparatus split between contending factions of the ruling class, or one that is united under the army and bent on reversing all the hard-won gains of last year’s revolution. Under these circumstances a vote for Morsi by revolutionaries is not a vote for Morsi as such. It is a vote for the maximum ability to continue to the revolution in the current period.

Alan writes at the end of his article, “the movement won’t be defended by supporting a party that has embraced neoliberalism and authoritarian politics in its agreements with the military. The key will be independent working class organization that can respond to all threats, in whatever form.” This is completely correct. But this election will have a decisive impact on the independent working class organization. To abstain from it will be a disaster.

* I apologize for my long absence from blogging. To my at this point probably less-than-devoted readers,  I have been in the midst of a somewhat protracted personal crisis since shortly after the time of my last post, which combined with my preparations to graduate college and political work ate up the vast majority of the energy I felt I needed to be thinking on the level I would like to post at. Coming up I would like to post a few political talks I have written for the ISO, and some papers I wrote for classes and the like.



Filed under Politics

3 responses to “Some thoughts on the Egyptian presidential runoff

  1. johng

    I thought it was excellent that John drew attention to the tendency for revolutionaries (very bravely) to substitute themselves for absent social and political forces. There WAS a revolution in Egypt even if its not one that the left led. The left has certainly made great gains in this (one can see this in the first rounds of voting). But at issue here is whether a representative of THE and not A counterrevolutionary force will be elected. If that happens its a disaster. Its wildly ultraleft in those circumstances to abstain. There is a counter-revolutionary mood around crime, security of property, social instability etc. To abstain is effectively to back this mood of fear of the future and regret about the past. I’d also noticed comrades noting how weak the working class movement was and the disasterous impact that restoration of dictatorship (with the mass support of a vote) would have. As a side note its why some had concerns about permenant revolution as a description of events as opposed to a longer term strategic goal. The recomposition of the class under neo-liberalism. the legacy of dictatorship etc, etc all mean that the working class needs space to breath and organise and so do the left. To behave as if it makes no difference if most people vote for a return of the old regime and all this is shut down…how crazy. The comparison with American lessor evilism just seems obsessively parochial in these circumstances.

  2. A better reply than my own to SW from Mostafa Ali, a member of the RS and longtime ISO comrade:

  3. Yours was solid and well thought-out, comrade…I’m passing along both yours and Mostafa’s to those who ask, as you cover slightly differing but all valuable arguments.

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