History’s greatest reset button has been hit.
After 887 days of protests, tear gas, tanks, camels, horses, tent cities, marches, birdshot, live ammunition, ultras, great music, torture, rape, disappointments, spears, knives, Facebook campaigns, undercover thugs, military detentions, men with scimitars, show trials, elections, referendums, annulments, arson, police brutality, negotiations, machinations, committees, strikes, street battles, foreign bailouts, extreme theatre, revolutionary graffiti, television drama, Leninist study circles, and Salafi sit-ins, Egypt’s young revolutionaries have managed to do the near impossible: force the “nizzam” – the system – to restart a deeply flawed transition process in a manner which, at least at the surface, puts civilians in charge of a fraught transition process that was likely doomed the first time around the moment SCAF took control.
It was a warm but confusing evening on February 12, 2011, when I reached the rooftop restaurant of one of Zamalak’s classic “boutique” hotels, having been pushed out of a Tahrir Square whose celebratory mood had already begun to sour, as Salafi activists stormed some of the stages where the revolution’s heroic artists were about to perform and gangs of men began what has become the horrifically predictable ritual of hunting women in the crowd to rape. The mood at the restaurant was giddy but also quite naturally apprehensive, as almost two dozen of the main young activists of the January 25 revolution, along with some more senior activists, were discussing the most urgent question before them:
Should the protests continue and press the military even harder to force it to agree to a civilian-controlled transition, as occurred in Tunisia, or should the protesters acquiesce to a military-led transition and rely on the army’s goodwill and their now clearly established people power to ensure stability during the coming months and give the Egyptian people time to recover after a breathless 18 days.
The situation truly was unprecedented. As if in some movie fantasy fight, the seemingly “98-pound weakling”- a youth-led Egyptian civil society- had managed to land a massive right hook against the heavyweight champ – the Egyptian military, one that knocked him to the ground and left him shaken and exposed. Another barrage of punches could potentially put him down for good. Should you move in and try to finish him off before he’s had time to recover? Or would doing so expose you to the full fury of a cornered lion, now suddenly awakened and ready to attack without mercy to, quite literally, disarm the threat before him.
This was the choice facing the young, largely accidental revolutionaries (accidental in that hardly anyone imagined on January 25, 2011 that their protests would spark a history-altering revolution). No one at that meeting, and no Egyptian activist I’ve ever met, had any illusions about the authoritarian nature, strategic goals and intentions of the Egyptian military, which had ruled the country since 1952. Hundreds of thousands of protesters might have chanted “the people and the army are one hand,” but the Tahrir organisers, like so many Egyptians, knew better. They knew that the military was using them as much as they were using it; a marriage of convenience that allowed history to be made but could unravel at any moment.
With 40 per cent of the country living on $2 dollars per day or less and Egyptians already reeling from two and a half weeks of protests, a reluctant consensus seemed to be emerging that the masses of Egyptians couldn’t hold out through the weeks of political chaos and economic standstill that would be necessary to force the army to agree to a civilian-led transition that they didn’t broadly control. And so the the SCAF-led transition was put into place, with the hope early on that the army would realise that its interests were served by shepherding the quickest possible transition towards civilian rule.
Nothing left to lose
If the revolutionaries who have won two extraordinary victories in less than three years can find a way to keep the tens of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to oust Morsi in the ring and on their side they might just win the fight.,
The last two and a half years have largely flowed more or less as one might have imagined once SCAF assumed control of the transition. The military’s broad control of Egyptian politics for half a century, it’s huge role in the economy – including in the transition to a neoliberal order that was supposed to weaken the grip of the old elites but broadly strengthened it, its highly authoritarian and patriarchal nature, and its guaranteed support from its major Western and Arab sponsors, all left it with little incentive or even ability to move the country along a path that would actually produce freedom, dignity, social justice, and an overall better life for most Egyptians.
The problem was, and remains, that the only way for the revolution to achieve its core goals would be literally to create a new state – a new set of power relations and institutions through which they flow that would profoundly redistribute social, economic and political power throughout Egyptian society. But to do this they would have to take on, and defeat, the military and the order it represented. As long as the military controls the political and economic process in Egypt, the vast majority of Egyptians will live well below their economic and political potential.
The honeymoon between the military and the revolutionaries was over not long after it began, as the military launched waves of assaults on and even massacres of demonstrators and activists, detaining thousands, most without civilian trials, even as the deep state began to shore up its political footing through the emerging constitutional, legislative and electoral process. In the summer and fall of 2011, spring and fall of 2012, revolutionary forces returned to the streets and battled the military, and ultimately the Brotherhood-regime, not with any hope of finishing the revolution, but to ensure it wasn’t completely lost.
Natural allies, under the right conditions
The Muslim Brotherhood was well poised to become a major player in the post-Mubarak order, not merely because of its well-known history, popularity and organisational strength, but because during the previous generation its leaders had been, however, hesitantly, integrated into the economic elite, giving them enough stake in the system so that the movement could be counted on to play by the rules if and when they began to assume political power.
As highly patriarchal and authoritarian institutions, the military and the Brotherhood had the potential for significant cooperation, especially once the economic interests of the senior leadership moved towards those of the rest of the Egyptian elite (a process that began while leaders like now deposed President Morsi and Khaiter al-Shater were still in prison). Indeed, in hindsight the Brotherhood’s purge of younger and more progressive members in the later 00’s seems as much a clearing house of anyone who’d challenge this process of integration – the neoliberalisation of the Ikhwan – as an act of doctrinal purification.
The present situation, in which the military has deposed a Brotherhood President, was not inevitable. Had Morsi not done such an abysmal job as President, the military and the deep state it shepherds would have lived quite happily under a constitutional system that left its power and budgets largely outside the bounds of the emerging religiously-grounded political system, whose imposition of a conservative vision on society served the interests of the power elite as a whole much as the rise of social conservatism in the United States has served its economic elite quite well.
But the only way this could succeed would have been for Morsi’s government to give enough other political forces a voice in the new system to enable them to feel they had a stake in its success. Morsi and the Brotherhood spectacularly failed in this task with their narrow focus on social issues, managerial incompetence and a Constitution that was sure to antagonise large segments of Egyptian society. But Morsi’s failure was not entirely his fault. Despite the fact it was controlled by religious conservatives, the disbanding of the lower house of Parliament closed off the one institutional political space for Egyptians both to negotiate with, moderate and even push back against the new leadership, leaving nowhere for the normal push and pull of politics to transpire. And so the street became the only viable vehicle to assert opposition to the new order, a situation which inevitably reinforced a uniformly antagonistic relationship between the opposition and the President and his allies.
State of flux – has the military become the Makhzen?
As is the case in so many moments of revolutionary transformation, Egyptians have in many respects been stateless since Mubarak’s departure. The military might have retained and even augmented its power under the post-Mubarak system, but the networks, institutions and conduits through which power long flowed through Egypt and governance was enacted have been disintegrating (evidenced in part by the increasing failure of the state to provide even the most basic services to citizens) without new ones replacing them. Unable to consolidate a new architecture and system, Morsi ultimately could only see himself as the embodiment and representative of the state, down to his very blood.
The only way the “rebellion” will complete its revolutionary transformation is if it fundamentally transforms the Egyptian economy and the deeply buried political networks that still control it. And the military will do whatever it can to prevent this from happening.
For its part, the military clearly considers itself, if not coterminous with the Egyptian state, then the primary conduit through which the needs and desires of the people can be realised (thus it acted against Morsi because it “sensed—given their sharp vision—that the people sought their support.” Yet unlike 1952, the military is in no position to provide the ideological blueprint for a new state. Instead, its main strategy for maintaining the “legitimacy” that Morsi so quickly lost is to serve as the grand mediator of contending social and political forces that, left to their own devices, risked tearing Egypt apart.
In so defining its role the military has taken a page from the Arab world’s deepest state, Moroccan monarchy and the Makhzen, the political and economic elite that surrounds, is managed by and serves it. It’s a smart move, considering how much support the military has lost when it directly governed the country. By defining itself above partisan politics and economic interests, the King and Makhzen have been able to rule Morocco for centuries, weathering challenges that sent many other regimes to the historical dustbin and ensuring a level of entrenched political power and corruption that is the envy of most autocratic regimes. It’s a record the Egyptian military would love to emulate.
The question is, will the Egyptian people accept the Makhzenification of the Egyptian military? The transitional leadership is dominated by figures like the Coptic Pope and the Sheikh al-Azhar, not to mention the interim President, Adly Mansour – the first person Mubarak appointed to the Supreme Constitutional Court – who were stalwarts of the old regime. As for the one revolutionary group within the leadership, the Tamarod movement represented by El Baradei, he and senior Tamarod leaders such as Mahmoud Badr have showered the military with praise in recent days, an attitude that has angered many revolutionary activists.
Yet it’s hard to imagine Badr or any other leader of the “rebellion” actually believes in the good intention of the military or other remnants of the old order. So perhaps all this sweet talk is just that – saying whatever is necessary to get the military to reset the process in a manner that will allow the revolutionaries to play the role denied to them the first go-around. Perhaps it is Tamarod and the millions of other protesters in the streets of Egypt – apparently the largest revolutionary outpouring in human history – who are playing the military and the deep state, and not the other way around.
Who’s playing whom will become clear in the coming months. The only way the “rebellion” will complete its revolutionary transformation is if it fundamentally transforms the Egyptian economy and the deeply buried political networks that still control it. And the military will do whatever it can to prevent this from happening.
There are two ways that such a transformation could occur. The first is that the renewed transition process creates a functioning political system in which, as has occurred in many post-authoritarian states in the last 20 years, democratically elected political leaders gradually drain power from once dominant militaries (Turkey and Latin America are the best examples of this process). The Egyptian military clearly understands this danger. It will thus be very interesting to see how it tries to manipulate the process to ensure its long-term independence and control over its economic empire against an emerging political elite that will at some point feel secure enough directly to challenge its prerogatives.
The danger here is that as the new system becomes more established, one-time idealists and rebels will become be coopted into the existing system before they have a chance to change it.
The other possibility is that the young revolutionaries behind January 25 and now June 30 decide that with tens of millions of people behind them (a very different situation than existed after the January 25 revolution, in which far fewer people actively took part), they can afford to go for the proverbial knock-out blow. Indeed, with the economy in tatters and the country on the precipice of unprecedented civil strife, the military is potentially in a far weaker position now than it was after Mubarak’s departure.
Few would have imagined that Egyptians would turn on the venerable Muslim Brotherhood as quickly as they have. The military is arguably even more respected, but if revolutionary leaders-turned-politicians can find the right language to explain to ordinary Egyptians the military’s role in denying them the “freedom, dignity and social justice” promised by the revolution the Egyptian people could demand the reining in of the military’s political independence and economic power.
Here, while few Egyptians were willing to entrust the governance of Egypt “to a bunch of twenty-somethings who’ve never had a job” (as many an older Egyptian expressed to me even as they thanked them for leading the revolution), the “adults” have made such a mess of the transition that people will likely be more willing to give the kids a real share of power this time round.
The question then becomes, how can the transitional leadership demand that a serious economic transformation in the interests of the mass of poor and working class Egyptians be part of the architecture of the new system, and how they will deal with the inevitable attempts by the military to prevent such a development? The Tamarod petition that relaunched the revolution hints at such an agenda, with its “rejection” of continued Egyptian “begging” for international loans, and “following in the footsteps of the USA,” whose neoliberal economic agenda has profoundly shaped the Egyptian economy for the last four decades.
Beware of technocrats
But its advocacy of a government of “technocrats” is quite naïve, as the job of technocrats, despite the connotation of the term, is precisely to enact highly ideological policies that inevitably benefit elites at the expense of the majority of people. Indeed, Egypt has a long and ruinous history of technocratic rule, from British colonialism to USAID and IMF, who have in the guise of a supposedly apolitical and scientific agenda ensured the ever greater concentration of wealth and power among a small elite and the marginalisation and immiseration of the mass of Egyptians.
In the end, there can be no technocratic transition. Tamarod is going to have to outline a specific political agenda that can achieve the goals of the revolution by curtailing the power of the military and economic elite that has governed Egypt for decades, and it’s going to have to convince Egyptians both that this this agenda is realisable and worth returning back to the streets again and again to realise.
The Egyptian military stands in the way of revolution, and sooner or later the revolutionaries will again have to take it on directly.The question is: Who does the Egyptian state belong to, the military and the power elite, or the people? If the revolutionaries who have won two extraordinary victories in less than three years can find a way to keep the tens of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to oust Morsi in the ring and on their side, they might just win the fight. But to do that they will need to develop and articulate the kind of progressive ideology that economic, political and religious elites around the world have spent decades doing everything in their power to delegitimise. It’s a battle whose stakes involve us all.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming