[News] Where is Egypt’s Post-Coup Left?
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Mar 26 11:10:20 EDT 2014
March 26, 2014
An Interview with Abdullah al-Arian
Where is Egypt’s Post-Coup Left?
by PAUL GOTTINGER
/Abdullah al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown
University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is a frequent
contributor to Al Jazeera English and his forthcoming book is entitled
//Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt
conversation focuses on the political and social situation in Egypt
since the July 3, 2013 coup, which deposed Egypt’s first democratically
elected leader, Mohamed Morsi./
/*Paul Gottinger:** Some elements of the left and liberal sectors of
Egyptian society seem to have been taken in by the idea that Sisi and
the military government is somehow a continuation of the revolution. How
do you see progressive forces in the country faring?*/
*Abdullah al-Arian:* It’s important to distinguish between them. Some
people saw the transition, which began in 2011, as being coopted by
elements of the pre-existing regime. These groups maintained a
consistent position by rejecting the presidency of Mohamed Morsi
outright. So it wasn’t surprising that they were helping to cheerlead
the call for Morsi’s ouster in favor of a more revolutionary track.
The problem was that the revolutionary groups’ support for the coup was
very shortsighted. They didn’t understand that the problems of the
transition would allow the military an excuse to reclaim power. The
result was not just taking Egypt back to square one, but back into the
negative column. The military used the problems of the transition as a
pretext for ending discussion of any revolutionary transition. So I
think that decision to support the coup against Morsi by many
progressive elements of Egyptian society has irreparably cost Egypt any
chance at revolutionary changes, at least in the near term.
The progressive factions naively believed that once the military was
done with the complete repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) it
would somehow stop there and allow the resumption of some kind of free
and open political climate. However, history shows that in these
situations the repression is going to be total and complete. What we see
now is an unabashed attempt at the complete return of the old party
politics of the Mubarak era.
Then there are those who are called liberals, but are actually
ideologically bankrupt political opportunists. These are people within
the ranks of the old political elite, who tried to reinvent themselves
within a revolutionary context by engaging in democratic politics. But
when they found that democratic engagement wasn’t favoring them, they
simply reverted back to their authoritarian political arrangements.
These people called on the military to come in and do their dirty work
for them. When they couldn’t get elected at the ballot box, they wanted
to come to power on the back of a tank. It was incredibly naïve to think
that this tactic would work, but they did it nonetheless.
People that fall into this category include everyone from Mohamed
Sabahi, Amr Moussa, and other failed political idols that make up
Egypt’s political scene. To their everlasting shame, these figures will
be remembered for the fact that they supported a military coup that
overturned whatever possibility existed for any revolutionary change in
Egypt. One could go even further and say these figures helped legitimize
the disproportionate state violence that took place in the aftermath of
*/PG: One of the things we’ve been seeing in Egypt over the last few
years is the mobilization of the labor movement. The many strikes over
the last few years have certainly not gone unnoticed by Egyptian
authorities. In fact, one of the first statements that Prime Minister
Ibrahim Mehleb made after his appointment on March 1 was that there
should be a ”Stop [to] all kinds of sit-ins, protests and strikes”. Can
you give some background for the labor movement in Egypt and what
potential it has to push the country in the more progressive direction?/*
*AA:* The labor movement has a very rich history in Egypt, which goes
back to the colonial era. The labor movement led some of the most
important actions of national resistance against colonial occupation,
then against the monarchy, then against the authoritarian dictatorships,
which emerged after the 1952 revolution. Part of the tragedy of the
2011 revolution is that the labor movement was used as pawns in the
emerging political calculus among the various political forces. This
includes those that supported the revolution, and those that were
responsible for the counter-revolution. Although organized labor were
helping to lead the protest movement since 2011, they were frequently
being asked by all the different factions to put their main concerns
aside for the interests of the nation.
This was done during the transition period, and this was done under the
Morsi government. The MB government created the sense that somehow
organized labor action was going to destabilize an economy, which Morsi
was aiming to improve. Then once again after the coup, which was
supported by some segments of organized labor within Egypt, labor was
told that their interests would have to wait. They were told that they
would have to sacrifice for the broader interests of the Egyptian
economy. Labor hasn’t been included in any meaningful way in any of the
discussions of the political realignments that have been taking place
over the last three years.
/*PG:* *There has been a steady level of protest since the coup took
place last July. To what degree is this the result of significant
problems having to do with Egyptian quality of life, which haven’t
improved since the coup?*/
*AA:* Try as the military might to rewrite history, the 2011 uprising
was a revolution launched by people who were struggling for basic needs.
The Egyptian people were calling for “bread, freedom, and social
justice”. The issue of a new social and economic arrangement is one of
the things that has gone almost completely unaddressed since 2011—but
especially in the aftermath of the coup. Every single indication we see
now is that the political order is moving in the direction to reaffirm
the pre-existing socio-economic arrangements.
Examples of this include the oligarchy’s continued benefit from the
neoliberal arrangements, which were put in place during the late Mubarak
era, the military’s continued hold over a massive segment of the
Egyptian economy, and the prevention of worker’s rights and any kind of
economic redistribution within the country.
/*PG:* *Do you see the ongoing protests and strikes potentially forcing
concessions from the Egyptian military government?*/
*AA:* It remains to be seen. So far the government has shown a complete
unwillingness to concede on anything whatsoever. The high degree of
repression, the unprecedented use of force and state violence, and the
signals that the military wants to achieve political power (the military
passed a constitution of its own design) all demonstrate that even in
the face of regional isolation and international condemnation the
government is moving forward with its commitment to revert back to some
version of the politics of the Mubarak era.
/*PG:** Nationalist sentiments have become very popular in Egypt with
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi enjoying immense popularity for the
military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. You stated earlier that you don’t
see Sisi being able to greatly improve the security situation or
economic situation. Given this how long do you see this overwhelming
support for Sisi continuing?*/
*AA:* A big problem with authoritarian systems of governance is that it
is almost impossible to measure popular sentiments. The number of people
who support Sisi, or the number of Egyptians who supported the
referendum on the constitution is impossible to verify in the current
climate of complete and total repression.
The popularity of Sisi is really just part of a guessing game. But it’s
safe to say that a cult of personality has arisen around him. Remember
just two years ago no one knew who Sisi was, but now you can’t go one
city block in Cairo without seeing his image. This mythology has been
built at an alarmingly fast rate, all in the last 8 months.
Just because Sisi has had such a quick rise doesn’t mean that he’s going
to be granted a free hand to do whatever he wants. I think there will be
a certain degree of frustration in the early months or years of his
rule. This will be especially true if the economic and security
situations don’t improve and the atmosphere of fear and total repression
is maintained within Egypt.
At that point you may see a more revolutionary movement take hold again.
The problem is that this is exactly what the military and Sisi himself
are anticipating, which is why they’re taking as many steps as they can
to try to prevent it preemptively. For this reason they’re trying to
recreate the culture of fear in Egyptian society. This explains the
excessive and in many cases indiscriminate violence, where at times
people on the sidelines of protests have been killed.
There have been attempts to silence not only the MB, but also
intellectuals. Even university professors have been dragged into
conspiracy cases. They’re showcasing the ex-president Morsi on the soap
opera that they call a trial, all in an attempt to bring back a certain
culture of fear in Egyptian society, and prevent a revolutionary
movement from emerging in the future.
A recent law states that any gathering, which has ten or more people,
needs to have government approval ahead of time. This approval would, of
course, never be granted in the event of any anti-government non-violent
protest. The military argues that there are no longer emergency laws in
place, but remember emergency laws in Egypt, which suspended people’s
rights, lasted for the entire Mubarak era. Despite the fact there is no
emergency law in place, the constitution, which was just passed,
institutionalizes some these of emergency laws. It grants law
enforcement a much freer hand to abuse their power and doesn’t guarantee
citizen’s rights in a way other Egyptian constitutions in the past have
attempted to do.
/*PG:* *Do you see any seeds of a revolutionary element still existing
*AA:* At this stage it’s far too early to tell. First of all, the most
powerful opposition group, the MB, is more or less defunct at this
stage. Its ability to mobilize has been completely decentralized to the
point that low level and midlevel leaders at the local level are the
ones who lead the protests. How sustainable that is remains to be seen.
If we move beyond the Muslim Brotherhood the remaining independent
voices are waiting to see if there is an opportunity to try to engage in
some kind of opposition to the new political arrangement. Some are
debating whether or not they should take part in these elections,
whether or not could actually compete within the new rules, which are
being established by Sisi. Others are waiting to see how widespread this
repressive climate will be, how long it’s going to last, and whether
there will be a window to engage in a popular protest movement.
The problem is that the revolutionary movement is quite divided. This is
the legacy of the success of the military and the interior ministry
security forces in keeping these movements as fractured as possible. You
can also say the MB deserves much of the blame for that because it
maintained a very exclusivist approach in its politics and its protest
movement. In fact, even in the face of state repression targeting all of
them, there still is a tremendous amount of ill will between the MB and
the other opposition forces. As long as this fracturing occurs, these
forces will pose no serious threat to Sisi and the Egyptian military
/*Paul Gottinger* is a writer from Madison, WI. He edits
whiterosereader.org <http://whiterosereader.org> and can be reached at
paul.gottinger at gmail.com <mailto:paul.gottinger at gmail.com>/
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