25 June 2012. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. Egypt has had its first so-called "free" elections, but the nation and its people are not free. In fact, from beginning to end, the purpose of the electoral process was never to allow the people to express their will but to repair and reinforce the apparatus of their oppression.
For months many activists argued which was worse, a military regime or an Islamist regime. In the end, they got both.
In toppling Hosni Mubarak a year and a half ago, masses of Egyptian people and especially youth hit hard at the old political order, a political set-up ruling the country on behalf of foreign capital and the Egyptian capitalists and other reactionaries subservient to those economic and political interests. The electoral process has been about restoring that old order, providing it with new reactionary features – the equally empty but symbolically powerful validation of god and the ballot box – to restore the state's battered legitimacy.
In his victory speech, president-elect Mohammed Morsi made very clear what this election has not changed by paying tribute to the institutions that have made Egypt a prison. While lauding the "martyrs of the revolution" whose sacrifice made it possible for him to become president, he declared his loyalty to those who killed them.
That Morsi proved most effusive in his praise for the police might have surprised many people. They are Egypt's most universally despised men, gangsters given a franchise to rob the people in exchange for protecting the bigger robbery carried out by the Mubarak family and other regime favourites.
Yet Morsi intoned, "I salute the honourable policeman, my brothers and sons, some of whom mistakenly think I do not regard them highly. Those who commit any crimes are subject to law, but the honourable policemen who are the vast majority deserve to be saluted and appreciated. They will have a big role to play in the future to protect and serve the country." (Al Jazeera English)
Among Morsi's "brothers and sons" were the men who dragged the young Khaled Saeed out of an Alexandria Internet café, beat him in the street and bashed his head against an iron door and concrete walls until he died, and even afterwards. Khaled is said to have posted pictures showing police involved in drug dealing. Photos of his disfigured corpse multiplied on the Net. Youth and political organizations called for a demonstration on Police Day, contrasting the Egyptian policemen who revolted against the British occupation in 1952 and their ignominious role under Mubarak. That 25 January 2011 protest led to the occupation of Tahrir Square and the eventual toppling of the president.
Did Morsi mean to praise the high police officials who, during the protests, released criminals from prison, sending them to loot and provoke confusion and fear, and who are still encouraging criminality so that the people will turn to them as the “lesser evil”? Did he mean to praise the lowly traffic police, who since the fall of Mubarak, have sown chaos in the streets and traffic roundabouts, following instructions to prove that the only choice is the old order or disorder?
The fact that the new president had to promise that policemen will be subject to the rule of law is telling about how arbitrariness and corruption have thoroughly pervaded Egyptian society and discredited authority on every level. But with this statement about the future, wasn't he also saying that the police need not fear punishment for their far more serious past crimes?
The Central Security Forces, volunteers from among army conscripts, used chains, whips, batons and guns to attack protesters in Cairo and other cities. These are the men who ambushed marchers in Suez, producing the first clashes in the escalating fighting that eventually forced the police to pull across the country. Did Morsi mean to praise the riot police in charge of beating and killing demonstrators for decades?
The same courts that declared Mubarak responsible for the killing of demonstrators, just before the elections, also ruled top police officials innocent of those murders. Not an officer has been punished, aside from two policemen sentenced to seven years in prison for killing Khaled Saeed.
Morsi also had high praise for Egypt's judiciary system. This was less surprising, since the same judiciary that has protected the police also provided the legal basis for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to shape the electoral process. It was an electoral commission made up of Mubarak-era judges that declared Morsi president.
Most importantly, he slyly revealed "a love in my heart that only god knows" for the Egyptian armed forces and vowed "to preserve the military institution in Egypt." This is the military that stood by and watched the police and Mubarak's other thugs kill at least 800 people in the uprising and then posed as saviours of "the revolution" when at the last minute Mubarak had to be unplugged. This is the armed forces whose soldiers and military police, in the name of “defending the revolution", took over the task of attacking demonstrators who dared come back to Tahrir Square and began killing people at an escalating pace. In October 2011 they turned a protest against assaults on Coptic Christians into a massacre. A few months later, backed up by tanks and under the cover of dark clouds of tear gas, they used lethal rubber bullets, birdshot and sniper rifles to blind, cripple and kill hundreds of demonstrators in and around Tahrir Square and the Interior Ministry. That was the punishment for demanding an end to military rule.
Morsi even paid homage to Egypt's intelligence services whose speciality was not the defence of their country (they worked with Israel and the U.S.) but the torture and murder of their countrymen.
What Morsi's speech represented was not a perversion of the electoral process but its real purpose all along: the re-legitimisation of the state apparatus and the reconciliation of the people with their worst enemies
First of all, the whole concept of "the will of the majority" is misleading, because the people as a whole are never united by one will, and their "wills" are dynamic. During the toppling of Mubarak and the confrontations with SCAF since then, it has often been repeated that "Tahrir is not Egypt" – that the crowds who protested and fought, as large and socially diverse as they have been, are not "the majority". Yet at critical points, not only when Tahrir was filled with families but also during the fierce battles in late 2011 when students, unemployed young men and street children came to fight, SCAF was not able to mobilize large demonstrations or other shows of support for the military against the youth. On the contrary, some of their elders stood in line amidst the smoke, tear gas and shooting to donate blood at emergency facilities set up for protesters by medical volunteers. While many Egyptians may not consider themselves "revolutionary" as the Tahrir youth do, when SCAF attacked the youth, "public opinion" – especially those people who bother to express one – turned against the authorities. This repression was seen as illegitimate and sharpened SCAF's political crisis.
In the electoral process, SCAF hoped to appeal to the "silent majority", what Egyptians call "the party of the couch", people who passively follow events on television when their neighbours are in the streets. Those activist youth who endorsed or accepted the electoral arena as the way to determine Egypt's future failed to learn a vital lesson of their own accomplishments: suddenly one day, a day when conditions were right but which was unexpected and in fact unpredictable, the militant actions of a determined minority – who previously lacked a broad, active following – were able to awaken large numbers of people, divide their enemies and prevent those enemies from being able to mobilise the support of the backward.
Further, the electoral process wasn't (and never is) neutral. SCAF, the judiciary, the government-owned media and many other reactionary actors all worked to shape it, disqualifying candidates and discourses until the electorate was presented with a nightmare choice: to vote for Ahmed Shafik, the Air Force commander who was Mubarak's last prime minister, or the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi.
According to official figures, about half the electorate couldn't bring themselves to vote for either. (Some reporters and other people who visited polling places estimated the participation at far less.) For many people this was a conscious boycott: a popular slogan was "Down with the next president of Egypt!" Yet some political and youth organizations supported the military candidate against the Islamist or vice-versa.
One group that ended up implicitly endorsing Morsi (by issuing a statement opposing Shafik's candidacy and not Morsi's) argued that "the Islamists" should be supported against "the state". (See "Revolutionary Socialists' statement on Egypt's presidential elections", socialistworker.co.uk; or the widely reposted article by Hossam el-Hamalawy, "Sometimes with the Islamists, Never with the State"; and his explanation of this long-standing International Socialist Tendency policy in Middle East Research and Information Project no. 242.)
This confuses the state and the government. Shafik was undoubtedly the armed forces' favourite among the candidates for presiding over the government, but his defeat in no way represents a blow against the state.
Elections or no elections, like all countries in today's world Egypt is a class dictatorship, in this case the rule of large-scale capitalists and landowners whose interests are in accord with the subordination of Egypt's economy to foreign-based capital and its political domination by the U.S. and other imperialist countries. The Egyptian state represents those class forces and their interests, and its instruments of repression – the armed forces, police and courts that are the core of the state – exist to protect and enforce those interests.
The people's movement forced the Egyptian state to dump Mubarak. But although the word "revolution" is so popular that Morsi and even Shafik claimed it as their brand identity, the basic economic, social and political organization of Egyptian life went unchallenged in the election, not only because no candidate or party posed that challenge, but more fundamentally because elections cannot overthrow this reactionary class dictatorship.
A week passed between the presidential elections and the announcement of the winner. The final tally of votes for the two candidates was more or less the same as initially indicated, and the electoral commission handily threw out the charges of vote tampering. The long pause was necessary because of intense negotiations among the Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF, and most importantly, the U.S government. (See The New York Times, 25 June 2012)
If Washington and London were able to spare a moment from plotting to remove Syria's Bashar Assad and congratulate Morsi (although Obama is said to have rung up both Morsi and Shafik), it's because they believe that the result of the Egyptian elections are at least acceptable.
The above-quoted Revolutionary Socialist statement supporting the election of the Muslim Brotherhood "against the state" also presents a false equation between the religious sentiments among the people, which will persist for a long time to come even among many revolutionary-minded people, and the Muslim Brotherhood's political project. The two need to be separated as much as possible, and political Islam should not be bowed to in the name of freedom of religion.
To quote Lenin, "All oppressing classes stand in need of two social functions to safeguard their rule: the function of the hangman and the function of the priest. The hangman is required to quell the protests and indignation of the oppressed; the priest is required to console the oppressed, to depict to them the prospects of their sufferings and sacrifices being mitigated (this is particularly easy to do without guaranteeing that these prospects will be 'achieved'), while preserving class rule, and thereby to reconcile them to class rule, win them away from revolutionary action, undermine their revolutionary spirit and destroy their revolutionary determination." (The Collapse of the Second International)
Morsi is a good illustration of Lenin's observation. He promised over and over again to bring the common people a "life with dignity". These words could mean different things, including the very deep and positive aspirations that made people disgusted with the moral values of the Mubarak years. But Morsi is silent about how this is to be achieved, aside from promising to abolish political corruption (which is both an impediment to the smooth functioning of capitalism and an inevitable consequence of private ownership of the means of producing wealth) – and putting himself, "god's candidate", into office. While his speech played down the issue of religious rule, he and his party have proclaimed, from their founding more than 80 years ago through at least the day before he was anointed president, that "Islam is the solution".
The Egyptian military has sometimes been in sharp conflict with Islamists, but it has promoted Islam uninterruptedly since 1970, following the collapse of the nationalist project led by Gamal Nasser, whose vision of a "third way" between capitalism and socialism led to the emergence of a new capitalist class centred in the military and the state sector of the economy, today apparently represented by SCAF. Egypt's capitulation to Israel brought both an increased need to use religion rather than nationalism as a source of legitimacy and conflict with Islamic forces: Anwar Sadat, whose 1971 constitution enshrined Islam as the "principle source of all legislation", was himself assassinated by Islamists. When Mubarak assumed the presidency in 1981 he freed the Muslim Brotherhood political prisoners and entered into a complex but mutually beneficial relation with the Islamist movement, often allowing them to function as his loyal opposition (and thus providing political cover for his rule) and sometimes slapping them down, presenting himself as the only alternative to Islamic rule.
During the last days of the Mubarak regime, when Tahrir and the country's other public spaces were roaring with defiance, the Brotherhood was negotiating with Mubarak's head of intelligence and vice-president, Omar Souleiman, their contact man for many years. When the youth returned to Tahrir last November, again the MB refused to support them, and amid the political crisis entered into negotiations with SCAF to form a new government. After those talks failed and a Brotherhood leader came to speak in Tahrir, he was chased out.
In short, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a party of opposition to the state but a "party of order", one of an array of reactionary forces that both jointly and in rivalry with one another are striving to put an end to a period of popular revolt. Its programme of throwing the veil of Islamic government over an Egypt whose economic and political structures are unchanged amounts to seeking to reconcile the people with their lot and the fate that imperialism, especially the the U.S., reserves for their country. There is nothing nationalist or democratic about them.
The Muslim Brotherhood does have real political contradictions with the SCAF and possibly different economic interests (the MB has strong support among a section of newly-rising private sector big businessmen). Further, although Morsi emphasized his support for the humiliating agreements with Israel that American officials unabashedly label a "red line" Egypt will not be allowed to cross, it may be hard for the Brotherhood to publicly kiss the Zionists' boots. Other Islamists not bidding for American approval may come to the fore.
This problem, and other highly unpopular measures sure to come, may help explain why Morsi officially resigned from the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party after he was elected. Maybe this way the MB can have its cake and eat it too, enjoying the benefits of heading a government and able to distance itself from governmental policies when necessary. In the end Morsi agreed to be president of a government which armed forces decrees had stripped of most of its powers, at least for now. Perhaps, after a proper show of submission, his government will be rewarded, but the situation is complicated. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood might prefer that the armed forces keep the responsibility for arresting and imprisoning people, relieving the Islamists of the embarrassment of filling what were once Mubarak's jails with political prisoners.
Morsi promised that he would "continue the revolution" until "all the revolution's objectives" are achieved. What can this mean? It is true, unfortunately, that the objectives of those who brought down Mubarak have been far from clear and often contradictory. But whatever the new government looks like, even if it were to be very "democratic" in terms of paying lip service to the political rights of all citizens and inclusive of Copts and American-approved liberals, it will not free the people from what they need to be freed from.
For instance, the peasants and farmworkers will not be free to carry out the agrarian revolution that is crucial to freeing the country from imperialist economic and political domination and the resulting backwardness and stagnation throughout society. Morsi, like his rival presidential candidate, has been silent on that question.
Women will not be free to break the bonds of tradition and become a motor force in the country's transformation. Morsi, who often addressed "my family" and "my brothers and sons" in his speech, is a self-acknowledged representative of patriarchy – after all, his organization is not called the "Muslim Brother and Sisterhood". But the many misguided people hoping that the military will protect women from Sharia (Islamic law) law should remember how the armed forces dispersed a women's protest in Tahrir with a special bestiality. The image of soldiers stripping and stomping on "the girl in the blue bra" is matched by the Brotherhood's insistence that women be made faceless. This veiling has been well under way even without the force of law behind it. (It has to be pointed out that the new leader of the Coptic Church called on Christian women to follow this example of what he called Muslim "modesty".)
Those who mistakenly see either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood as possible allies in the struggle to solve even these most basic democratic issues are going to be sorely disappointed, if not crushed. These problems cannot be resolved except through the establishment of a revolutionary political power led, through whatever necessary stages, by the outlook and political programme of the proletariat, not to win narrow demands for the workers but because, seen in its historical role, the proletariat can free itself only by freeing humanity from the enslaving division of society into classes and all the economic and social relationships, institutions, practices and thinking that go along with that.
Morsi's speech focused on "unity of all the people of Egypt". "We are all fingers of one hand," he declared, a new version of the now discredited slogan "The people and the armed forces are fingers of one hand." But the situation is defined by antagonisms. The interests of the country's rulers, and of the U.S. and its gendarme Israel, are antagonistic to the interests of the great majority of Egyptians.
It would be a big mistake to think that this election has resolved the situation. Over the last year and a half huge numbers of people have shown again and again that they would rather risk death than live in the way they have been forced to. Further, while there may never again be a "Mubarak moment" when most of society seems united, the people's enemies have not yet been able to resolve their internal contradictions and their legitimacy crisis and build a stable regime. Most of all, the people have lived an experience that has brought out some of the weaknesses of their oppressors who once seemed all-powerful, and given them more confidence in themselves and each other and their collective ability to bring about real change.
But there is another extremely serious problem: the fact that real social change has not been achieved despite all the sacrifices made can weigh heavily on the people, especially when combined with the lack of a political force that can put forward and mobilize people around a compelling understanding of why Egypt and the world are the way they are, and how, concretely, things could be different.
It would be wrong to underestimate either the difficulty and possible consequences of these problems for the people, or the present and potential problems for the people's enemies. The Egyptian ruling class and the U.S. and even the Brotherhood did not want to see Mubarak go in a way that would lead to such political instability, but that's what happened anyway. Thanks to the people, events spun out of all the reactionaries' control. This achievement continues to reverberate and keep the ball in play. The outcome remains to be settled – and is likely to remain the issue of the day for some time to come.