Sunday, 30 January 2011

Egypt, the tipping point and the military

The Egyptian intifada is the most wonderful thing that has happened for decades, and it is at a critical point. The apparatus of fear, the security forces, have melted away from the main streets and resorted to looting. Jets have just buzzed Tahrir square (I have just heard one over the line to Al Jazzera English with Comrade Hossam)  where people are back,defying the curfew and continuing to demand the end of the regime including Omar Suleiman.  Al Jazeera itself has been banned but Hossam reports that people are determined and taking control of their own security by forming self-defence committees in the neighbourhood.

 Night is falling and, as everyone knows, the army's reaction is going to be the key. Mubarak is on a sinking ship, watching his rats leave: his sons are in London (chase them if you find them), Ahmed Ezz, the personification of the unity of personal corruption, neoliberalism and abasement to Zionsim has resigned. Reports have come through of literal capital flight - 19 private Egyptian planes arriving in Dubai last night. Mubarak first said there would be no concessions, then managed to combined looking weak with enraging the protests by making no concessions but seeming like he had to. Someone is giving orders but I don't think it's actually Mubarak anymore. Hilary Clinton has just said on CNN that the US seeks an 'orderly transition of power'. This looks Shah-like.

But watch that phrase 'orderly transition of power'. It means keeping power for the currently existing order. Suleiman is, as everyone by now surely nows, as despised as Mubarak. As much as Ahmed Ezz, he represents in personal form the regime of which the people demand the downfall - a securocrat at the head of the apparatuses of oppression that have weighed on the Egyptians for so long, and the link between the Egyptian regime, the US and the Israeli occupation in keeping the Palestinians in their place. He is not a very good choice to mask the easing out of Mubarak. That is why there is an unhealthy hint of 'orderly transition' in the planes and live fire that can still be mustered by the remnants of the state.

Will the soldiers shoot? Someone is still giving and taking orders but equally there are widespread beautiful scenes of fraternization. Could the troops fire on so many of their own people? The pattern of repression - from use of police, to security police, to army tanks and now perhaps to air force indicates a dynamic of moving the armed state functionaries literally further away from the protestors. The 'July Revolution' of 1952 - the coup that brought Nasser to power - came after the mass burning of Cairo earlier that year but the Egyptian army today is not that of sixty years ago. For one thing it's been in power that long and that's what people want to fall.

 The question isn't whether officers will take power (they're in power) but whether the lower ranks will obey their orders. The Free Officers were largely composed of people from middle peasant backgrounds (two thirds of them, according to Ellen Trimberger in her book Revolution from Above). Their programme comprised the strengthening of the army through the expulsion of foreign influence, industrialisation and agrarian reform (Hussein, 1973:96). The new regime sought to shift Egypt’s source of foreign currency from the export of cotton – the main mechanism of combination by which capitalist relations had penetrated the country – towards a strategy of self-sufficient industrialisation (Hinnebusch, 1985:23). In so doing Nasser took his place amongst the wider category of regimes that had emerged from the crises of national liberation resolved by ‘middle class nationalists determined on independence in the global arena and national unity internally’ (Hinnebusch 1985:15). They ‘hoped to create a strong Egyptianized state with the aid of an up-to-date army, and compensate the failure of the traditional representatives of the ruling class’ reflecting their keenly felt awareness of the political consequences of Egypt’s uneven development in the ‘politico-ideological inferiority… with respect to foreigners, loss of the state's moral authority, and anachronism of the traditional political parties’ (Hussein, 1973:95).

 The revolution happening now is the result of the eventual bankruptcy of that project after the 1967 defeat, the death of Nasser and the turn to neo-liberalism under Sadat's infitah. The top brass are now part of the nexus of mukhabarat, business cronies and patronage that comprises the Egyptian ruling class.The heroic stage of the Arab petty bourgeoisie in uniform, if it ever had one, has long past. In the 1980s the Egyptian military built up a significant portfolio of industrial investments (especially in food but including at one point even an opera troupe) that have remained in the hands of officers, even as Mubarak sacked the man in charge of the programme as a potential rival. Even if you think Hugo Chavez is a model to be emulated, do not expect one here.

But the army has 450,000 men in it. The lower ranks come from the people who are protesting. This is what is leading to the fraternization. This disintegration of discipline may be being tolerated right now but once the example is there it's more difficult to go back. The protests are not simply observers of the army either. The more of them and the more determined they are (I feel very foolish writing those words, as if I had a right to judge the unprecedented courage of these millions of heroes) the more pressure on the ranks. The Egyptian army has not sustained the acceleration of contradictions brought about by war and external defeat, as the Russian army had by 1917 and the Portugese by 1974, but it is too big to be completely isolated from the people. The emergence of popular alternative power centres exerts an attraction on those who might otherwise believe 'order must be restored'. There are elements of such alternatives in the neighbourhood committees now being set up on Tunisian lines to defend against the looting remnants of the mukhabarat. I'm reading reports of strikes in Suez, Isma"iliya and Mahalla, which will pose similar questions of popular organisation.

The books mentioned above are
Hinnebusch, Ray. (1985) Egyptian Politics under Sadat: The Post-Populist Development of an Authoritarian-Modernizing State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hussein, Mahmoud. (1973) Class Conflict in Egypt, 1945-1970. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Trimberger, Ellen Kay. (1978) Revolutions from Above. New Brunswick: Transaction Press.


  1. Thanks for this Jamie, very useful reading and pointers for where else to look. I really appreciate you putting this up.

    Glory to Egypt!