Two equally flippant extremes on the recent violence in Cairo and Alexandria:
Unsurprisingly, neither standpoint is unfounded. On the one hand, we have evidence of unarmed civilians shot by passing Egyptian security forces. Then again, we have pro-Morsi supporters pouring petrol over the entrance to Cairo International airport. Both sides are large, and come both peacefully and with their violent edges. General Sisi’s call for populist rallies to legitimise his coup would, a few days later, stoke further rallies in support of the deposed president.
In any deeply divided society, populism is its greasiest but most dangerous political lubricant. Why, after all, should you bother acting democratically – or even constitutionally – if you can deafen the streets with those chanting your name? The revolution continues; though, it might be said, in two ominously different directions, under two undemocratic banners – each trying desperately to show the least care for the other side.
When in power, the Muslim Brotherhood banned any future president from being either Coptic or female (that’s 60% of the population right there). In a recent interview with Mada Masr, Freedom and Justice advisor and MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad expressed no regret for this: to the contrary, Morsi’s biggest failing was not to go far enough:
The big mistake that the president made was not to carry the revolutionary spirit into governmental reforms…We literally allowed this coup to happen because he wasn’t as forceful as he should have been…The president made a decision early on to [rule] by the book. Many objected to his decisions, even inside the Brotherhood. He decided to respect the corrupt heritage that was left for him, and that includes a corrupt constitutional court, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt set of regulations and laws that are literally designed to trap anyone in office.
For “corrupt”, replace with “secular”. It leads to the same conclusion: that the dreamy air of Muslim Brotherhood HQ would have raced for a Turkish-style army coup in order to prevent them from doing the same. The free election of 2012 had already been subverted beyond recall by 3rd July when Sisi took the reigns. But that does not justify legally questionable methods to remove Morsi’s supporters from the streets, nor his unofficial, unknown detention (nor the raids – none of it).
Last year’s narrow election would realise the undemocratic realities of a majority-ruled democracy for a polarised electorate; it might be hoped that the coming election will not result from the very same failures. Without a solid constitution – guaranteeing the place of the military, basic human rights and a secular framework in which a civil bureaucracy might operate – the realities of those Egyptians who demand a peaceful and economically stable nation will never be met.
Unfortunately, whether this will emerge from a bloody dialectic between Mubarak ghouls and the vainglory of would-be theocrats only time can tell.
But the reality is, however incompetent Morsi’s administration, many key levers of power – from the judiciary and police to the military and media – are effectively still in the hands of the old regime elites. They openly regard the Muslim Brotherhood as illegitimate interlopers, whose leaders should be returned to prison as soon as possible.
Yet these are the people now in alliance with opposition forces who genuinely want to see Egypt’s revolution brought at least to a democratic conclusion. If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are forced from office, it’s hard to see such people breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy or asserting national independence, as most Egyptians want. Instead, the likelihood is that the Islamists, also with mass support, will resist being denied their democratic mandate, plunging Egypt into deeper conflict.
The people of Egypt are being mislead. The millions in Cairo can’t be demanding democracy because they aren’t demanding what Milne wants them to demand. They are being passed like a ball between progress and reaction, forces so abstract that no one would ever dare to question their existence.
Milne’s stress on the importance of leadership is hardly refutable; but his argument, funnily, is the very same employed by Tony Cliff when he justified the bureaucratisation of International Socialism to the closed clique of the Socialist Workers Party. As early as the 1960s Cliff had been panicking about the “danger that we’ll become mindless militants. It’s true that theory without action is sterile, but activity without theory is blind.” What they really want is the old Stalinist image of “democratic centralism” – elect whomever you please. Provided they’re far left prophets – or, for Milne, anti-American demagogues hungry for “national independence”.
Why, man, why?
The narrative in which Communist sympathisers flirted with the far right is well-rehearsed (see Cohen’s oft-quoted What’s Left?); Milne, shamelessly predictable as he courts it.
Since the fall of their mother country, Soviet apologists have only be able to defend their credibility by shedding their old rhetoric and instead donning the bland uniform of the guerrilla journalist. “Capitalism”, once the umbrella for all modern evils, has been secularised to “neoliberalism”. “Imperialism” has broken free of its Leninist principles and come to mean any action undertaken by any member of any American government. The West is out to get them. One imagines their self-worth: a Jesuit missionary traversing the winter of the Elizabethan Reformation to save whatever lost pilgrims he can – and so if it requires petty alliances with the far right, then so be it. The means justify the ends. And not even a trace of irony.
Plenty of contradictions though. (They love them.) Liberal democracy and imperialism are – to any sane observer – irreconcilable; granting sovereignty to a people, in principle, guarantees their right to self-determination. No, no, not to the truther crowd; no because everything’s Orwellian and war is slavery or ignorance and peace or something (they don’t know what they mean so I’ll be damned if I’m going to try). Democracy is most certainly not democratic. You’re no doubt seeing some milder parallels with the lunatic Alex Jones here. Other signed-up members include Galloway, Greenwald, the Stop the War Coalition, Respect and even some of the Greens.
Solidarity with the Sheeples!
It really won’t do.
The most obvious are the European revolutions of 1848, which were also led by middle-class reformers and offered the promise of a democratic spring, but had as good as collapsed within a year. The tumultuous Paris upheaval of May 1968 was followed by the electoral victory of the French right. Those who marched for democratic socialism in east Berlin in 1989 ended up with mass privatisation and unemployment. The western-sponsored colour revolutions of the last decade used protesters as a stage army for the transfer of power to favoured oligarchs and elites. The indignados movement against austerity in Spain was powerless to prevent the return of the right and a plunge into even deeper austerity.
Notice: not “Western-supported” or “with Western sympathies” but “Western-sponsored“. What a slimy euphemism. It apparently doesn’t matter that there aren’t any figures to paint them as Western-funded; for Milne and his crew, there’s no distinction between the media against whom he believes he’s fighting – despite being himself a part of it – and the “ruling classes” who keep stealing his proletariat revolutions.
Instead, the Egyptian people are informed of the “democratic mandate” behind Morsi. He might not have their full support – but, you know, at least he’s opposed to “neoliberalism”, right?
Morsi and the Democrats
It might not be true of me – or indeed many people on the left at all – but the Washington consensus of the 1980s made one principle very clear; the left’s support for regulated markets and for rampant trade unionism, across the world, led neoliberalism to be associated with liberty. I’d be interested to here whether this is still a view on the grounds in Egypt – but it is certainly true that one does not lightly grapple with the state’s economic machinery; and an Islamist attempting to promote his democratic credentials would not be inclined to be hostile to the free market.
There’s a reason for this, one might imagine: Morsi might have been hoping to consolidate his position before discontent could bring him down. His November declaration enhanced his personal power, effectively removing any and all legal constraints. It might indeed be true that this would have been necessary for any post-Mubarak president operating in a system filled with the ex-dictator’s bureaucrats; but a genuine democrat promotes citizens within the system. He does not simply pretend the system does not exist. Wael Eskandar at Notes from the Underground has some great analysis here.
Islamism is a necessarily authoritarian ideology because it is the assumption, backed by the state, that one religion should take precedence over all others; it was the First Amendment more than anything that separated the United States from the history of absolutism, from state certainty and moral directorship. No amount of fresh makeup can make pleasant the hideous grooves of clerical fascism.
With thanks to Shiraz Socialist – here are some of the 22 million “elites” celebrating:
But they celebrated in 2011
Indeed they did.
But another common factor, without which neither “coup” could have taken place, took it upon itself to promote the popular voice once again. As I said a few days ago:
A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.
I can’t give my support to the Egyptian army – only its objectives, if they are as benign as they suggest. For the democratic socialist, and indeed perhaps all democrats, “paternalism” is as shifty as it is shallow: no matter how honest its leadership, the distinction between a government that is benevolent and one which is democratic and popular closes in the minds of those handful who believe they control a country’s fate. Did they allow a dictator to survive office for decades simply because hardly anyone had protested?
And that’s excluding a military leadership with ulterior motives. Any commentator should be concerned by the recent imprisonment of Brotherhood officials; it’s not freedom of speech if dependent on the merry laws of expedience and convenience. A citizen’s army is not inconceivable; but, for now, Egypt needs to hope that the military’s undemocratic activities are short-lived, as ephemeral as the the gulf between political rules – an interruption begun and made inevitable by popular revolution.
If it is true that Egypt has avoided the bloody martyrs now littering Syria, then – I don’t know? Is there room for a little optimism?
When you worn to exhaustion by the vampiric presence of Jeremy Kyle or that perpetual newsreel on poor Maggie’s demise, the mind drifts. And it drifts towards one final tool for procrastination. Well – should I? You’re faced with a Socratic challenge. It will demand the evasion of judgmental family members. An easily concealed TV set is obligatory; an already stained conscience helps. In spite of the inevitable guilt that threatens to mute any pleasure you might dare to enjoy, you continue.
And I did it: I watched Loose Women.
It all seemed somehow vindicated by the story which the ladies shared with us – about a 104 year-old gentlemen whose gardening abilities have been maturing for nearly a century:
But it is the roses that fill Ralph with most pride. At the rear of his garden are some 200 floribunda and hybrid-tea bushes which in summer will produce flowers of many shades and a glorious scent.
Despite his age and a creaky left knee, Ralph still does most of the work himself. He can still, with difficulty, plant potatoes, although he now uses a tall hoe for weeding and a grabbing tool for picking things up. His great-grandchildren help with dead-heading the roses and weeding, but only under his close supervision.
This year it’s been too cold to get out much. He is waiting until the end of the month to sow his onions and potatoes but doesn’t mind the delay.
‘Gardening is all about having something to look forward to,’ he says. ‘It gets me through the winter. If I’m ever depressed or lonely, I think to myself “never mind, the roses will be along soon”. It gives me the willpower to keep going.’
And with this wise image I was left thinking about the Arab Spring. For roses we might replace the scent of Jasmine in Tunisia, whose democratic seeds may have been planted too close to the surface and now risk being uplifted in the rains. If it is true that the ousting of Ben Ali was the “encounter of the social and the democratic” then we would do well to remember that not all reunions have a happy ending. Some end in divorce, and others with the wife stabbing the unsuspecting husband with a screwdriver.
The inevitability of the seasons, if it does exist in the Arab Spring, is as likely to incubate fear as freedom – in part, I suppose, because many of its fanatics see the terrorising of others as a liberty. What if we reach winter when all the colours in the flowers are dead?
Ivy is a tenacious little bugger – it’ll survive winter’s chill. So will all the creepy insects just waiting to crawl out and infest the world again, like Camus’ La Peste, a dormant plague slowly bubbling its way to the surface where it readies to bring down another free city. I don’t know. Perhaps we can take comfort knowing that even if the tree sheds its leaves it doesn’t go anywhere. It can have them back soon enough.
Just don’t fall into that mellow optimism that the language of the seasons seems to tickle in us. It’s a simple tool used to absolve us of our rightful responsibility – because talk of nature implies a self-fulfilling ecosystem whose horrors will be purged from within. In reality, though, some of the people out there really need our help.
I never mixed so many metaphors with so little apology. Anyway, consider donating to the DEC’s Syria Crisis Appeal?