Mursi: pharao or revolutionary?

Contribution on the relation between revolutionary vanguard and the deep people
by Wilhelm Langthaler
For the vanguard Mursi is a counter-revolutionary driving the country back to a Mubarak-type dictatorship under Islamic guise. Conversely for important sections of the broad and often passive masses he is the guarantor of the revolution. The protests against Mursi’s authoritarian degrees tend to escalate into a struggle for toppling the president altogether. Set in this way the revolutionaries will hardly be able to win such a confrontation.

It is all about this apparently small alteration which is dealt with in this piece – the turn from the struggle to rescind a dictatorial ukase into an attempt to topple the entire regime. For it makes a tremendous difference if one wants to approach this problem in terms of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.

The line of the Tahrir leftists is crystal clear: Mursi is usurping their revolution. They were in the forefront of the mass uprising to topple Mubarak, while the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) only followed suit. Many Salafis even supported Mubarak. After Mubarak’s disposal the MB did everything possible to soften and decelerate the popular movement. They even entered into a block with the army against the Tahrir. While the Tahrir wanted to finish off with the junta, the MB went for gradual changes sweeping them to power by elections – regardless of the conditions attached. Eventually this even worked out only to build a new, henceforth Islamic dictatorship. The MB are now playing the game of the US both domestically and across the region. They have turned into their lackeys. The dictatorial powers Mursi has abrogated for himself bear witness of this fact. Therefore the new pharaoh has to be stopped and chased away like Mubarak.

There can be no doubt that anti-imperialists and revolutionaries must side with the popular protests against Mursi’s self-empowerment. Furthermore, many elements of the narrative recounted above are correct. The problem is the context, the totality and first of all the political line of action flowing from it, namely the frontal clash with Mursi and the Brotherhood with the maximal goal of deposing him. By this line the Tahrir can only get a bloody nose.

The broad rearguard

When they took on Mubarak, Tahrir’s revolutionaries were a vanguard with the backing of the absolute majority of the people. They stormed ahead, overcame the fear and the people followed or were forced to follow – or subsided alongside Mubarak.

But then came the MB and assumed the command harvesting the popular revolt. How this was possible although they had refused revolutionary methods and opted for futile gradual reforms? Over decades they had sunken deep roots into society engulfing all social layers. Their constituencies have been longing for change. They want to get rid of the subordination under the US, they want to overcome mass poverty and they hope for a certain degree of freedom. For a majority these interests do not contradict Islam. On the contrary for many Islam stands as a symbol for these interests.

From this point of view pushing back the military junta, as Mursi did, does indeed appear as a formidable success. Also the easing of the blockade against Gaza imposed by Egypt at the behest of the US and Israel will be credited to Mursi’s regime. The extraordinary powers recently grabbed by Mursi can appear as a measure to curb the Mubarak people which still play a role. The constitutional degree against the judges, which are a stronghold of the old regime, can therefore be read as a positive step, the more so as it happened to have been a demand of the Tahrir. We should not forget that before the Islamists had been reproached to allow the impunity of the old regime. His constituencies advance trust for Mursi and regard him as the guarantor of transformation. Even many, who are not with the MS, believe that for the time being people should accept Mursi as president and that they should let him work and we will see whether he delivers. The current attacks on him are therefore considered counter-revolutionary.

It suites this narrative that sections of the old regime side with the Tahrir under the flag of secularism regardless of the revolutionaries’ refusal of this unsolicited embracement. From the Islamist point of view a Western-backed (for them a synonym for secular) counter-revolution is to be foiled.

So what we face is a shift in the Egyptian power triangle of old regime – Islamists – Tahrir. In the first stage the Tahrir seemed to have remained alone defending the revolution against both others. Now the Islamists claim to be alone alleging the Tahrir to be an appendix of the old regime. Two conceptions are clashing both of which have coherence and credibility within their respective constituencies. The late Mubarak regime – on the contrary – had had lost any such consensus. This very fact that the conflicting narratives wield considerable political power must be taken into account when contemplating a political line.

Mursi unequal Mubarak

In order to find a key to escape from this impasse the equalisation of the MB with the Mubarak regime must be radically dumped. For the current central role of the MB and other Islamists stems from being the resultant of a deep and broad mass movement in Egypt and in the Arab world all together. It is a tectonic shift of historic dimension which is only at its beginning while its engine is far from being exhausted. It corresponds with a global weakening of US predominance especially in the region. The MB might push, curb, manipulate, amputate this mass movement – but in one form or another they must refer to it. The current showdown does not contradict this general assumption, though it certainly shows a strong overestimation of its own clout by the MB. We will see in which way they will try to extricate themselves from the mess they created. To maintain mass consensus they must deliver in a certain form with regard to the popular expectations.

An analogy is obtruding itself upon us with regard to the relationship to the subaltern classes despite all cultural differences – historic European social democracy. This comparison explicitly includes repressive and authoritarian measures inflicted on the workers’ movement and especially upon its communist vanguard. One answer – not the only one – was the united front approach by the vanguard which we advocate also for the MB.

Cairo’s new regional role

Also on the international scale one should not be blinded by the co-operation of the MB with the US by assuming a linear continuation of Mukarak’s foreign policy. It is obvious that Mursi neither is able to nor wants to break with Washington. But what we do predict is that they will try to smoothly move away and develop a more independent stance. The first step was the softening of the anti-Iranian line symbolised by Mursi’s visit to Teheran and the readiness to end the isolation of the Islamic republic. The second step has been the easing of the embargo on Gaza1 which Mubarak used to execute on the US’s behalf. Thirdly there is the increasing distance to Saudi-Arabia which tends to support the remnants of the old regime, the feloul.

We can draw a comparison with Turkey and the AKP even if there the shift away from the US and the West happened very gradually anticipating and thus preventing a mass revolt. Step by step the AKP pushed back the secular military dictatorship and opened democratic spaces. Even on the Kurdish question, the deepest rift within society, they could at least perforate the front lines and significant reform measures are yet to be expected. Under the title of “zero problems with the neighbours” they left the front against Iran, downgraded the alliance with Israel and undertook business with Asad. Eventually Erdogan took side with the Syrian revolt not to suit Western interests but based on the erroneous calculus that Asad will fall soon. They hoped to fly higher on their neo-ottoman projections but fell into the current impasse.

In Egypt the tectonic drift away from the US will not go smooth despite the MB’s attempts. The preconditions are much worse especially the economic ones. The relations with Israel will cool down although the MB will not dare to break with the US. The main strategic question, for the time being unanswered, is revolving around the relationship with Iran and therefore also with Saudi-Arabia which is spearheading the anti-Persian and anti-Shia campaign. There is certainly a sectarian undercurrent against the Shia within the MB, but there are on the other hand controls to moderate it as is the case in Turkey. Much depends on the conflict over Syria to which Cairo is party. A settlement with Tehran would swiftly lift Cairo into the position of the central power of the region while putting Riyadh into the corner. But this is in no way given. There is a strong counter-momentum at work. Even a strong participation in the anti-Shia campaign, however, does not necessarily mean to become a tool in the hands of the West as Mubarak used to be. In any case Egypt got a growing potential for more independence particularly in co-operation with Turkey. It would be a large mistake to assume that only the Shia-Persian bloc got anti-imperialist potential. An Egypt too independent could in the future alter Washington’s stance. One should not forget the dual containment strategy in the Iran-Iraq war. Cairo will not be the true servant like Riyadh and therefore needs to be balanced against.

What we want to express in the current context of the MB-Tahrir clashes: Mursi is not the rachitic dictator as the late Mubarak used to be, but he got the potential to rally consensus across all classes first of all with a foreign policy turn but also with certain domestic measure. The current confrontation does not exclude future integrative moves despite authoritarian aspects. He cannot be toppled by a frontal assault. On the contrary the revolutionary vanguard is at risk to isolate itself from the deep people. Secularism could turn into a trap set out by themselves. What today seems appropriate is patience to keep the pressure on the regime to implement the interests of the masses. The differential between these articulated interests and the MB’s deeds can increase the Tahrir’s strength if propagated without ultimatism and without secularist aftertaste.

Declining the Tahrir

The basic demands of the Tahrir are right and legitimate. The authoritarian measures of Mursi and the MB need to be criticised and fought. The solution is a genuine constituent assembly elected by popular vote, not the current amputated assembly building on the old constitution tuned Islamic.

Maybe the Tahrir will not be strong enough to impose that solution, but possibly Mursi needs to give in to some compromise which should be regarded as a success. The aim must not be the toppling of Mursi altogether which completely sidelines the question of the constituent assembly and changes the battle field and the stake. The MB have presented themselves for half a century as an alternative. Now it is their turn to deliver. They need to be given the chance to display their abilities (or shortcomings) in deeds. For the next years they will be in the centre of the political leadership of the country. In order to evolve into a democratic direction, society needs to go through this experience.

For the revolutionaries this will be no lost period at all, but will offer them the possibility to sink roots into the masses after decades of erosion and to develop a serious alternative political project. (Especially on the socio-economic front this will be necessary and potentially successful as the Islamist do not hold only alternative to the devastating neo-liberal recipes.) Considered all in all a defence and consolidation of the newly acquired freedoms would already constitute a gigantic success never achieved before in Egypt.

Secularist trap

There is the third player to be taken into account – the old regime. By embracing the anti-Mursi mobilisations they try to recycle themselves. For the Islamists it is easy to point at the “secularists united against the revolution” even if the Tahrir refuses the unwanted embrace. All of a sudden the chief of the penal cassation court, the feloul Maged, is back in public circulation. Mursi’s authoritarian degree was directed against the old Mubarak-linked judicial apparatus (not only), which used to be one of the main enemies of the popular movement. While Mursi committed a grave error in the way he did it (which was covertly directed also against the Tahrir), the Tahrir should not underestimate the fact that the move was overtly directed against their enemy as well. For the deep people the radical opposition of the Tahrir to Mursi’s will therefore appear ambiguous. It there needs to be well moderated.

When the MB entered a bloc with the junta many leftist could not anticipate that they might re-calibrate the bloc. If the left now declares Mursi and the MB as its main enemy, automatically the old regime gets out of the visor. The strategic orientation must be, however, to push the Islamic bloc ahead against the old regime and thus to differentiate it between the conservative components which want to preserve the rule of an (Islamised) capitalist elite on one side and its more progressive and popular components interested in radical democratic and social change maybe under Islamic guise.

The fear of Islam is big, too big and sometimes hampers the conquest of the majority. The overwhelming majority is longing for democracy, social development and national independence. Islam is regarded as a symbol for that. If the Tahrir goes frontally against this symbol they will end up in the secularist trap. If they can avoid this trap or even make use of the symbol in their own way, the long and torturous struggle for hegemony and political leadership of the mass movement for democracy, social advance and national sovereignty can advance.