Egypt stands at a crossroads. Its future remains uncertain and the past cannot be escaped. What comes next depends on the outcome of the various conflicts that continuing to define Egyptian political, economic and social life. The Muslim Brotherhood Government of Mohammed Morsi represents another stage in the continuing contestation over both the state and the meaning of the Revolution.
The Brotherhood faces both unprecedented challenges and centrifugal pressures restricting its room for action. Unemployment and poverty has increased since the Revolution. Three quarters of the Nile cruise fleet stands idle during the peak winter season and foreign currency reserves have dried up. The Egyptian pound has been devalued, inflation is set to rise and the demographic time-bomb of an extremely young populace has not yet been addressed. The higher echelons of the Brotherhood know that severe austerity measures, including cuts in energy subsidies and tax rises clumsily avoided in December, will have to be imposed. Islamism or no Islamism, statecraft in capitalism follows its own unremitting logic.
How the Brotherhood seeks to define itself in the coming period, up to and after the elections of the Lower House of Parliament in March, will be critical in the development of the revolutionary process. The Brotherhood will face contradictory pressures from multiple directions: a balance of forces which is dynamic and volatile. First there is the religious right, both within the Brotherhood from the ‘Supreme Guide’ Muhammad Badia and outside from Salafist iconoclasts like Hazem Abu Ismail and the various Islamist groups that make up a quarter of the current Parliament. Then there is the pressure from native and international capital; including the IMF which has delayed a $4.8bn loan before tax increases are implemented, Gulf states creditors (who make up the majority of Egypt’s sovereign debt), those reliant on the Tourism industry, the army and native industrial capital. Furthermore there is the continued pressure from Western governments like the US and Britain who continue to see Egypt as central to the defence of the Israeli state and as the guarantor of the Suez Canal and oil transportation. However, what remains the single biggest pressure for the Brotherhood continues to be the Egyptian people – nurtured and invigorated by the hopes and aspirations of the Revolution.
The next stage of the Revolution will represent not a contestation over the constitution, but over the social demands characterised by the thousands of localised strikes and protests since the Revolution began. As much as President Muhammad Morsi may wish, you can’t feed a country with a constitution. Conflicts over housing, education, jobs, basic welfare, energy subsidies, water and electricity are being waged over the whole of Egypt, led by the same people who had a role in Mubarak’s fall. Central to the pressure from below will be that of the resurgent labour movement and the rank-and-file action being conducted across the country, from Mahalla to Aswan to Suez, over wages, conditions and corrupt and lingering Mubarak-era management (the ‘Little-Mubaraks’). Over 1500 strikes were recorded from August to September 2012 alone. A new independent trade-union federation has been formed called the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade-Unions which in October 2012 had 2.5 million members. The recent demonstrations and re-imposition of military rule in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia indicate that social conflict can crystallise around specific issues – such as the court battle over the Port Said football massacre – and then generalise into revolts against the regime itself. Outside the ballot-box, the role of workplace struggles and the continuing prominence of Tahrir will remain critical in the coming months. Protesters in Egypt’s textile capital Mahalla threw out their governor and declared independence from the Brotherhood state in December, while activists in Port Said look like they may do the same. Just because the Brotherhood can secure a majority vote in an election does not mean they control the country.
Even so, the potentialities of a Brotherhood electoral hegemony remain real, at least for now. Electorally pitting the more conservative and illiterate (and numerous) rural population against opponents in the major cities and major centres of industry – Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria all gave majorities to the Nasserist Sabahi in the Presidential election – could be a key to the maintenance of the Brotherhood state. An informal or unspoken alliance between the Brotherhood, Egyptian industrial capital, the army (which itself holds a great stake in the economy) and the conservative middling and peasant classes, could potentially play a counter-revolutionary role if revolutionary confidence and aspirations lose traction. The central electoral constituency of the Brotherhood‘s Freedom and Justice Party and the various Salafi organisations come from rural areas. These groups have suffered greatly under the neoliberal policies of the Mubarak era as many were displaced as domestic crop production was replaced with cash-crops for export. The land-question is still a key issue for many Egyptians and rural poverty remains endemic. How Morsi will deal with these problems, or whether he will seek to reverse the policies of Mubarak, remains unclear. Either way there are contradictory forces at work among those social groups who have allegiance to Morsi’s Government. The Brotherhood’s intimate courtship with the army and the removal of commander-in-chief Tantawi also indicates that the army leadership is neither unified, nor overwhelmingly hostile to the Brotherhood’s advances. A pact of non-interference on the side of Morsi’s government towards the affairs of the army seems a logical step, given the role it has been forced to play recently in the revolt in Port Said and the political exigencies of defending law and order in the coming months. Both leaderships have a vested interest in the maintenance of the Egyptian state in the face of conflict led from below.
These contradictory pressures mean that the Brotherhood will be forced into a process of constant self-revaluation and ideological manipulation. As a synthesis of the various pressures, a party close, though not identical to, that of Ergodan’s Justice and Development party in Turkey, may be the model for Morsi. Combining a social conservatism based on broad understanding of Islamic law, with a pro-western economic policy, Erdogan remains an example of the sort of compromises the Brotherhood might be compelled to make. In September 2012 Turkey gave $2bn in aid and a $1bn loan to the Egyptian government in what seems an act of solidarity. Morsi’s conferences with Van Rompuy, Hollande and Hilary Clinton attest to a conciliation with Western diplomatic and economic policy and a continuing of the political practice of Mubarak. The separation between the words of the Brotherhood to its supporters and their action will likely become more pronounced as Morsi engages in the realpolitik of government.
It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the Brotherhood. Its historical function remains critical to understanding its future development. From its founding in 1928 by four workers employed around the Suez Canal, it has been an explicitly anti-imperialist movement that expresses the desire to universalise Islamic teaching (ideological and materially) into all modes of life, political, social and cultural. Repressed by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the Brotherhood was born out of failures of both the Wafd nationalist movement and the experiment of pan-Arab state capitalism, in offering a new anti-imperialist intellectual, cultural, political response to the West. The repression, isolation and ridicule of the secular establishment was not total in the years before the Revolution. Mubarak both repressed, but at other times tolerated the Brotherhood as a counterpoint and moderating force in relation to other more radical Islamists. The Brotherhood’s base in civil society (in various madrasas, mosques and hospitals, run or funded by the party) built up during years of segregation from political life of government, remains their most powerful asset. Where the state of Sadat and Mubarak failed to deliver in material and spiritual terms, the Brotherhood filled some of the gap. Demagoguery based on religious chauvinism, adhoc welfare provision and the popularity of the egalitarian aspects of Islamic teaching, should not be underestimated, especially where Islam plays a large role in public and civil life.
Central to an adequate understanding of the Brotherhood is the potentials of splits, or at least heightened pressures, along class lines within the organisation. The Brotherhood is not a homogenous bloc. Islamist movements are partial to the same unevenness and distinctions in power, wealth and status that emanate from the societies in which they are rooted. There are multimillionaire industrial capitalists and poverty-stricken peasants and workers in the same party. The heightened social conflict which will arise over the attacks on living standards wrought by demographic changes and continued neoliberalisation (if the terms of the IMF loan scheme is anything to go by) should further increase tensions within the Party. In May 2011 the Brotherhood’s youth-movement disobeyed orders from the leadership and joined the protests against the military council, while there have also been splits within the Brotherhoods leadership which saw Mohammed Habib stand against Morsi in the Presidential election. These fissures are likely to come under more strain in coming months.
The continued social conflict indicates that the Egyptian Revolution is far from over. Observers to the continued camp in Tahrir and the spontaneous struggles over social demands around the country can attest to the continued virility of resistance nourished by the Revolution. The struggle to go beyond neoliberal Islamism requires not only strategy, but politics. The Revolution’s rallying cry of Bread, Freedom and Social Justice will mean nothing without the means to achieve them. A mass workers party has not formed in the manner of Brazil in the 1980s. Attempts to form one in the Democratic Workers Party in early 2011 came to nothing, while the Egyptian left remains divided between various factions and political traditions. Networks of solidarity and councils of action have not yet formed in the scale needed to overturn existing Mubarak-era institutions. The official Mubarak-era Egyptian Trade Union Federation still remains dominant even in areas of heightened worker protest such as Mehalla textile mills or the Helwan iron and steel factories. The creation of alternative bases of power depends on the co-ordination of street protests, community actions and the momentum of the labour struggles, applying pressure on the Brotherhood from below. The newly independent workers movement and trade-union federation has the potential to become the critical actor in the Revolution and form the basis of new democratic institutional forms led from below. Preliminary strikes after Mubarak’s fall have won some concessions, but the momentum has so far centred in the street. Street protests can topple a leader, but shutting down factories and transport networks like the Suez Canal can topple a state.
Momentum in revolutionary periods however is not infinite. The bitter historical precedents of Chile in 1972-3, Portugal in 1974 and the other stalling Arab revolutions spell this out clearly. One thing that is certain though is that the balance of power within Egypt is explosive: a political powder-keg with any number of detonators. Both political repression and neoliberal orthodoxies look set to continue. The Emergency Law imposed recently in Port Said was the same one used to lock up and torture Muslim Brotherhood activists in the Mubarak-era – a bitter irony Egyptians will be quick to note. History, however, does not go backwards. The Revolution remains unfinished.
Matt Myers is a student reading History at the University of Oxford. He an Editor of the Oxford Left Review Journal and Comment Editor of the Oxford Student newspaper.