Monday, July 8, 2013

Massacre in Egypt: Is Revolution Worth The Price?

As I sat down to write this post the news of a tragic massacre of at least 32 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protestors, and the injury of 300 more was plastered all over the internet. That much is clear, the rest is yet to be disentangled (if ever) from two completely opposing stories by the Egyptian military and people on the scene. This is now one more massacre in a two year revolutionary process in which hundreds have died, chaos has reigned and nothing has been settled. I'm sure that millions of people in Egypt and even more around the region and around the world are asking: Is this what is necessary to win democracy and freedom? Is the price worth it?

There is obviously the danger of being glib in writing a judgment on the value or danger of  revolution from the safety of my office in Toronto, Canada - a country founded on the solid business principle of avoiding the messiness of revolution; a country that hasn't seen war in any significant way in 200 years. I'll try to avoid that as much as possible.

For certain the revolutionary process in the Middle East more generally, since the launch of what has become known as the Arab Spring, has had its share of chaos and tragedy. Dozens died in Bahrain in the struggle for democracy against a US/Saudi client regime - and suffered greater repression as a reward for their efforts and aspirations. In Yemen hundreds died only to see their aspirations deflected into a shabby compromise  that suited regional power-brokers - Saudi Arabia and the US (their involvement in aborting democratic movements is a theme and not a coincidence). In Libya, the west and their backers in the Middle East, in particular the Qatari emirate, swooped in quickly to ensure that the initial explosion of grassroots opposition to the Gaddafi dictatorship was controlled using western arms and logistics to suit the ends desired by the big oil companies, the US state department and the agenda of the EU. In Syria the repression of a popular movement led to civil war and the sickening sight of various imperialist powers - all of whom have happily repressed democratic movements around the world for generations - jockeying to gain the upper hand through the cynical manipulation of the various players caught in the Syrian tragedy. As always it is at the expense of local civilians, whether man, woman or child. As a former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once put it when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that had killed perhaps a million children: "We think that the price is worth it."

And yet, it isn't as though the region or Egypt, in particular, is descending into tragedy from a state of pre-revolutionary bliss. The meddling of imperialism - from US financing of the military in Egypt and of the Occupation in Israel/Palestine to Russian arming of the Syrian dictatorship - has ensured a repressive and inhumane set-up in the region. And for the people of Egypt, in particular since the Camp David Peace Accords of the late 1970s, which won the compliance of the Egyptian state to the American agenda in return for billions of dollars in "aid", it has meant decades of, effectively, martial law, police repression, torture and dictatorship in all but name. The compliance of the Egyptian regime also freed Israel's hand to steal more land, kill more Palestinians and launch wars and attacks on their neighbours whenever it suited their colonialist agenda. All this was largely ignored by western media who, when they even bothered to notice, usually put the blame at the feet of "uncivilized Arabs" who needed "strong regimes" to maintain control and protect Israel, the "plucky little democracy" of the region.

What has changed in the present moment is that the masses, the tens of millions of people who have endured the tender mercies of imperialist-backed dictatorships, have attempted to force their way onto the political and historical stage. The "chaos" and "instability" that the media and governments bemoan is really the emergence of democracy in the form of the people waking up to their own power to control their destiny. In the first instance this is, by definition, chaotic as the old institutions, designed to guarantee dictatorship and the rule of both state and market capital, are destabilized and collapse. The ruling class loses many of the levers, primarily fear and quiescence, that it once had to maintain "order" and "stabillty". On the other hand, the newly awakened people haven't yet created their own institutions to replace the old. In this gap between old and new is a ferment of experimentation. Some of it involves the creation of new forms of organization - Egypt saw neighbourhood committees to defend the revolution appear and disappear, only to reappear again during the past two and a half years. There has been an explosion of independent trade unions involving millions of Egyptian workers, after decades of top-down, state controlled "unions". 

But they also attempt to use their old organizations and old institutions in new ways. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood, which has existed for almost a century as an organization that sought to alleviate the conditions in Egypt through charity and moral uplift (basically, obedience to a hierarchical and conservative interpretation of Islam) became the immediate beneficiary of a revolution that they didn't support. Similarly, the military has retained the allegiance of the masses from the reflected prestige of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the Free Officer's Movement that overthrew the Egyptian monarch and promoted a form of secular nationalism that challenged imperialism (before being sold off to US imperialism by his heirs) and delivered land reform and social progress. The revolution has become an intense testing ground for these institutions and organizations to see if they fit the needs of the masses.

First the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the direct rule of the country after they facilitated the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. But their habitual use of repression, torture and corruption, not to mention genetic opposition to the extension of democracy and social justice created growing anger and mobilization that forced them to surrender office to the Muslim Brotherhood. For the SCAF the conservative MB seemed an excellent vehicle to contain the aspirations of the revolution. They would allow the MB to implement their cultural agenda, a certain degree of Islamization of the Egyptian state, and in return the MB wouldn't touch the institutions of the state security apparatus, including the SCAF itself. The bourgeois led MB also happily went to the IMF for loans and imposed austerity on their own supporters at home in order to implement a neo-liberal agenda. The result was an increasingly mobilized opposition that drew up to 20 million demonstrators on June 30.

It was this "dangerous" mobilization, as with the overthrow of Mubarak, and the threat of major strikes that pushed the SCAF to remove Morsi from power and attempt to replace him with another set of faces, a grand coalition, that would be more acceptable to the masses, It was a pre-emptive attempt to prevent a deeper, more radical revolution. In this sense it was a major victory.

There are several dangers unfolding and that will continue to unfold until the revolution can be completed (and spread to other countries in the region at least, especially Saudi Arabia). Because the military facilitated the removal of Morsy it can empower and embolden them to use their renewed popularity to clampdown not only on the MB but also on the revolutionaries and the popular organizations as well. SCAF's intervention "from above" can also stop the rapid disintegration of the MB that was taking place "from below", giving them the mantle of victim of a Mubarak counter-revolution. This can draw even those skeptical of the MB leadership's intentions and abilities to rally round them in the belief that they are defending the revolution - a revolution that the MB leadership never supported and tried to abort as soon as Mubarak was gone, including supporting the SCAF at every turn (except the one that booted them out the door). This polarization of "masses against masses" as opposed to "masses against the state" opens the door to a potential civil war, on the one hand, and provides an excuse for the SCAF to elevate themselves as being above the fray and thus the legitimate vehicle to separate the two sides and impose a neutral order on the Egyptian people. 

It remains to be seen if the massacre of MB supporters outside of the Republican Guard barracks today was the result of a MB attempt to storm the facility and free former president Morsy from his arrest (with the side benefit of portraying themselves as victims of an army assault if they failed) or the army decided to raise the stakes to provide justification for declaring a state of emergency - or if it were all the result of trigger happy soldiers firing on riled up MB supporters who got too close to barricades (there is no shortage of such "accidents" of history). What is clear is that navigating this confusing terrain and clarifying the next steps in the struggle will require a clear leadership with roots amongst the Egyptian people in order to avoid the twin dangers of supporting the army against the MB or falling in behind the MB as the defenders of the revolution - either of which could lead towards a civil war and defeat of the revolution. That leadership isn't about a few brilliant individuals calling the shots, it will have to be a collective leadership of thousands and tens of thousands of revolutionaries whose collective experience will help them to navigate the chaos and work with others inside the revolution to move things forward. In other words, a revolutionary party.

That doesn't exist yet in Egypt but there are thousands attempting to build one. In the meantime, what is clear is that as in all places the people who have power have no interest in giving it up and will stoop to any depth necessary - murder, torture, conspiracies, lies - to defend what they have. The tragedy and chaos of the present moment is not the result of the revolution, it is the result of that unaccountable an unequally divided power. The solution to ending the tragedy of massacres and misery is not to surrender to the power that imposes such tragedy upon the people. It is to decisively defeat that power so that it is unable to prevent the people from living in freedom and true democracy.
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