Whither Egypt’s Democratic Revolution?

by Brian Slocums on March 5, 2013

Continuing the discussion opened up by Pham Binh in Marxist Idealism and the Arab Spring, Brian Slocums offers a two-part discussion on the situation in Egypt. This first part is an overview of the current political situation and the principal political actors.

Egypt is currently enveloped in political crisis. Some six cities in the Suez Canal and Nile Delta are in a state of virtual insurgency, paralysed by mass civil disobedience and ongoing battles between protestors and security forces. President Morsi has proclaimed a state of emergency in these regions and the Army has been called in to maintain order in Port Said, the most severely affected. Police repression of the demonstrations has resulted in a reported 60 deaths thus far and hundreds of injuries. Meanwhile demonstrations against the Morsi administration continue in Cairo, also accompanied by violent attacks on demonstrators.

So how did we end up here?

Egypt’s Transition Towards “Bourgeois Democracy”

Egypt has moved hesitantly towards the end of military rule since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The first significant step forward took place in November 2011 when, after months of continuous mass protests, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) agreed to elections for the People’s Assembly. This produced a major victory for Islamist forces — 38% of votes went to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and 28% to the Salafist al-Nour party, with the two parties capturing over 350 of the 508 Assembly seats.

Morsi victory, June 2012 — flickr @drumzo

SCAF then called a Presidential election for May-June 2012. The FJP candidate, Mohammed Morsi, topped the polls in the first round, but with only 25 % of the vote; in second place with 24% was the military’s favored candidate, General Ahmed Shafiq. (The revolutionary and liberal vote totalled more than 49% but was spread over several candidates.) This meant that the Egyptian electorate faced a stark choice between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military in the second round. While holding deep suspicions of Morsi, most supporters of the revolution cast their votes for him as the lesser evil. As a result he was elected president in June 2012 with 52% of the vote. However, wary of a likely Muslim Brotherhood victory, SCAF had issued a declaration on June 17 which deprived the President of effective political power until a new Constitution was adopted and a new Parliament elected.

The Brotherhood in Office

Mursi took office on 30 June with a pledge to be “a President for all Egyptians.” Unexpectedly, he moved quickly to use his new authority to shift the balance of power away from SCAF: on August 12 he removed SCAF Chairman Field Marshal Tantawi as Commander of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense, replacing him with General Fattah El-Sisi, head of military intelligence. Morsi also took back powers that had previously been taken away from the President.

This move was carried out in agreement with the majority of SCAF, and seems to have represented a deal between the Brotherhood and the military. The terms of this deal became clear in the new Constitution: a withdrawal of the military from direct involvement in the governance of the country in exchange for being allowed to remain in charge of their own internal affairs.

When the courts then threatened to overturn the Constituent Assembly established to produce a new constitution, Morsi again took decisive action, issuing a Declaration on November 22 which denied any judicial body the right to interfere in the political process. It went on to declare all decisions taken by him immune from review by the courts and gave him authority to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” These powers were to last until elections were held under a new constitution.

If Morsi had limited his declaration to preventing judicial interference in the constitution-writing process the opposition might have accepted it. But exempting himself from any judicial oversight was a step too far and the opposition mounted large demonstrations in protest. Morsi eventually retreated, withdrawing the more controversial portions of his Declaration, but by then the opposition was demanding postponement of the planned Constitutional referendum — something Morsi was not prepared to concede.

Writing the Constitution

The drafting of the new Egyptian Constitution was undertaken by an appointed Constituent Assembly. The Assembly was composed of 39 politicians and 61 members representing different social and religious groups — a majority were Islamists and it included only six women. The Assembly carried out its work over a period of five months and the agreed text was rushed to a vote 15 days later on December 15, 2012.

The produced text failed to properly reflect the outlook and aspirations of the Revolution. Many of the non-Islamist members walked out early in the drafting stage, complaining that their views were being ignored. As a consequence, the referendum on the constitution was politically polarized. It passed with a solid 64% support, but with only 33% of the electorate voting. The Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist allies were able to mobilize most of their supporters (just under 11 million) while the opposition were divided between 6 million “No” voters, and a large number who abstained.

In my view, the blame for the failure of the constitution-making process is shared by all the political forces involved. Primary responsibility rests with SCAF for imposing restrictive conditions in an attempt to retain control, and with Morsi and the Islamists, who did not approach the process with the goal of reflecting the views of “all Egyptians” but only those of their faction. However the opposition must also share part of the responsibility — from the very start they played into Morsi’s hands, failing to engage seriously with the process or providing a considered alternative.

What then should we make of the Constitution that finally emerged?

The first thing I would note is that it represents a positive step forward in two important respects. First, it ends military rule. For the first time, this Constitution provides for a state structure based upon elected civilian authorities. Second, it creates a structure of democratic accountability with checks and balance between the different political institutions.

At the same time the constitution has many anti-democratic flaws. These lie in two main areas: the structures of power, and the specification of rights. Power over military matters is retained by the Army: the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces automatically becomes the Minister of Defence; the existence of SCAF is enshrined in the Constitution (although it has no defined powers); the military budget is to be managed by a National Defence Council with a guaranteed military majority; and military courts are authorized to deal with civilian cases where the interests of the Army are affected.

As far as rights are concerned the constitution contains general phrases about the equality of all citizens and other democratic principles, but these lack institutional guarantees. Its specific provisions with respect to women rights are paternalistic and fail to confirm rights. Religious freedom is only ensured for Christians and Jews. And the right to form trade unions is subject to state regulation with the corporatist proviso that “only one trade union is allowed per profession.”

On the role of Islam, the Constitution contains a formula similar to many states with majority Muslim populations (“Islam is the state’s religion and the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation”) but its Salafist supporters believe they have laid the basis in the Constitution for a much stricter interpretation.

So, what is the bottom line? In my view this could be regarded as a workable constitution for democrats, who could work through it to fight for particular policies and constitutional changes. The problem is that it is constructed as if it were a product of genuine popular consensus, with a very restrictive process for amendment. For this reason, it is not unreasonable for the opposition to continue to challenge its legitimacy.

The Political Forces: The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is best understood in class terms as a bloc between a fraction of the petit bourgeoisie and a national bourgeoisie with aspirations to be something more. For example, the real power behind the throne in the Brotherhood is Khairat al-Shater, a major business figure with interests in luxury furniture retailing and other sectors.

The Brotherhood and its political expression, the FJP, entered the elections with huge advantages — a clear political identity, a well-established organisation throughout the country, and strong local client networks linked to their social programmes. But they also has several points of weakness.

Muslim Brotherhood Headquarters

Muslim Brotherhood Headquarters

The elections suggest that the Brotherhood has a fairly solid base of 5.8 million (those who voted for Morsi in the first round); when combined with Salafist support this can rise to 10 million (as in the constitutional referendum). Their majority in both the electorate and in Parliament hinges on the support of the Salafists, and this is far from stable. The Salafists share the Brotherhood’s Islamist values but not necessarily their hunger for power. Most of the Salafist parties have indicated that they will not ally with the FJP in the upcoming Assembly elections.

Moreover, the Brotherhood/FJP is not homogenous. The Brotherhood has not performed as well as expected in recent student elections. During the revolution, their youth rejected the Brotherhood decision to stay away from the mass protests in Tahrir Square and joined the revolutionary forces. When the Brotherhood initially announced it was not going to field a Presidential candidate against the military, a dissident figure in the Brotherhood, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, responded by announcing his own candidacy. Fotouh proved to be a popular figure. A consistent supporter of the revolution and an opponent of the Brotherhood’s drive for power he was able to bridge the divide between supporters of the revolution and Islamist currents.

Finally, there is a serious contradiction between the Brotherhood’s organized social base — which is largely middle class — and its electoral base, which is poor and rural. The latter have huge social grievances that could draw them towards opposition forces if presented with a coherent program and strategy.

The Opposition

The opposition to the Morsi regime draws on the demands and tradition of the popular revolution. Since it was the revolutionaries of the street who made the sacrifices in this struggle, this gives them some claim to a revolutionary legitimacy that can stand against Morsi’s claim to democratic legitimacy. The problem is that there is no single organization that can claim to speak on their behalf. The main opposition organization is the National Salvation Front (NSF), which structures itself around an Islamist/secular line of divide. Thus, it includes the main liberal groups, like Mohamed El Baradei’s Constitution Party, radical forces like Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, and even some former regime supporters. Other components of the revolutionary forces — like Aboul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party, the youth movements, and most of the far left — have kept away from the NSF because of this heterogeneity. The result is an opposition that is seriously divided in both forces and strategy.

The loosely organised revolutionary forces who make up the street demonstrations are not clear about their demands or how to achieve them — they express a deep frustration and distrust of the Brotherhood and frequently call for the downfall of the Morsi administration. The latter demand is fuelled by the repressive way in which Morsi has responded to opposition protests, with both the police and armed Brotherhood gangs firing on demonstrators.

The NSF appears to be politically incoherent in this situation flipping between insisting that it is not demanding Morsi’s resignation to expressing solidarity with demonstrators who are. An indicator of the tragic incoherence of the opposition can be seen in the response to the recent decision to seek the death penalty for those deemed responsible for the deaths of seventy Cairo football fans in February 2012. In oppositional Port Said a virtual insurrection broke out; meanwhile in Cairo the Ultras Ahlawy celebrated the same verdict as justice for their losses.


Al Ahly fans in Cairo celebrate while demonstrators in Port Said riot (see video).

There appears to be no force capable of arbitrating this tragic division.

The Upcoming Elections

The most serious indication of the NSF’s political bankruptcy is its recent announcement that it intends to boycott the upcoming April elections. If it persists in this decision, it will be handing power to Morsi on a plate.

The only glimmer of sanity in this situation seems to reside with Abul Fotouh, who had kept his distance from the NSF, refused to join in the call for Morsi’s resignation, and has indicated that his party will take part in the elections.

There are real possibilities of defeating the Morsi regime, if a combined parliamentary, street, and social opposition can be forged. The raw materials for that already exist: the political groups most consistently associated with the revolution — Sabahi’s Popular Current and Abul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party — would start with the backing of 40% of the electorate. Targeting Morsi’s shortcomings and raising serious social demands could boost that figure.

The Military and the Ancien Régime

The military and the forces that descended from the former regime cast a shadow over the whole process of creating a new, democratic order in Egypt. How should we understand their possible role?

The Egyptian sociologist Hazem Kandil has argued that the Egyptian military regime rests on a “triangle of power”: (1) the military-political group (those who moved from military posts into state offices including the Presidency), (2) the security forces — a vast complex that has the job of repressing dissent, and (3) the military proper — the professional officer corps whose formal responsibility is national defence. In Kandil’s view, it is the first group, the military-politicians, who have been dominant and thus able to translate institutional power into personal wealth (i.e. to become a key component of the Egyptian bourgeoisie). While the politicians originate in the military strata, their relations with the professional military have often been strained.

The military establishment has extensive economic power but this is largely an institutional resource, used primarily to make the military economically self-sufficient. It does not work in a way that makes the officer corps a real component of the bourgeoisie (with the exception of senior officers who, after retirement, are able to move into private sector positions).

This interpretation can account for a number of things. The military proper actually had many points of conflict with the Mubarak regime. For example, they were uneasy about the possible extension of neoliberal reforms to military-owned industries. The overthrow of Mubarak can be seen as the professional military piggy-backing on the popular upheaval to establish its dominance within the “triangle.” But the professional military lack the capacity to govern the country; they need either a renewed military-political apparatus or an accommodating civilian partner to take on the role of governance in a way that does not disrupt their institutional position. The Shafiq/Morsi presidential contest represented a Plan A/Plan B in this respect. Once Plan B had been accepted as necessary, it was a logical progression from the half-way house of SCAF-Tantawi control to a proper transfer of power to a civilian government prepared to protect military self-government.

The implications of this are significant: it suggests that we are not seeing a mere tactical withdrawal of the military from the tasks of government but a long-term strategic shift — to withdrawing from the uncertain world of politics into the more secure institutional realm of the armed forces.

This does not exclude the possibility that SCAF might decide to reassert control at some point in the future, but it makes it unlikely in all but conditions of extreme political turbulence. This is confirmed by the conduct of the military in the ongoing crisis: they have generally been reluctant to intervene, despite calls from both Morsi and the opposition to do so. While Morsi has declared a state of emergency in those regions where the political upheaval is most violent, the army have been reluctant to take part in its implementation, leaving Morsi heavily dependent on the police.

Of course, there are other important components of the old regime: the security apparatus, the judiciary and the state bureaucracy (which has strong links with the military). There are two possibilities here: on the one hand they could be assimilated into new, sectarian structures of power orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood; on the other, sections of them could be drawn towards new, democratic influences. There is already significant ferment in the police and a strong democratic movement in the lower ranks of the judiciary — and the army rests on conscripts from the popular classes.

Again, there is a lot of room for an effective opposition to block the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive for power. But the proviso would be, as one analyst put it, “The path to power may begin in protests on the squares, but it must pass through the networks of people’s ordinary lives and worlds.”


The second part of this series will look at the role of the left and the development of the workers movement. Supporting material can be found on Brian Slocums’ blog.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh March 5, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I couldn’t agree more with Brian and Juan Cole that the left-liberal opposition’s call to boycott the upcoming elections is completely bankrupt and inexcusable:

“The opposition has shown that it is very good, on occasion, at holding large rallies. The crowds have forced Morsi to back off some of his controversial decrees, but only some of them. Ultimately, demonstrating is not a policymaking tool, certainly not in an environment in which regular elections are being held. The same energy and skills necessary to mobilize people to camp out in tents in city squares must now be turned to getting out the vote for parties and candidates that will take the side of the people, of students, workers, women, minorities and liberal Muslims, in the country’s evolving politics. Throwing in the towel now will simply hand Egypt to the Brotherhood and the Salafis, guaranteeing a continued turn to the right in legislation and ongoing political polarization and instability.”

The arguments by Brian and Arthur in the comment thread of my piece (http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5759) against my criticism of the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) for initially endorsing Morsi against Shafiq in the run off I think are correct; RS was right for the wrong reasons, and I maintain that characterizing the Brotherhood as “reformist” is dead wrong. I also agree with Brian’s characterization of the deal struck between the military and the Brotherhood as a sort of “division of labor,” but I think the limits of that deal would be severely tested if the liberals and the left started winning elections instead of whining about them and gained some power in the post-Mubarak system. It’s hard for me to imagine what SCAF would have done if Sabahi won the presidential election or if pr0-civilian rule parties came to power. I also wonder if Shafiq was really SCAF’s plan A or its plan B given their apparent preference for staying behind the scenes rather than governing directly?


Brian S. March 5, 2013 at 6:05 pm

@ Binh: I suspect there were different views in the military, and the victory of the FJP tilted the balance in favour of the anti-Tantawi grouping. I am sure the military would draw the line at any attempt to remove their autonomy, but how much latitude they might allow on other issues I don’t know. It does seem that they recognise the danger of the Brotherhood being a “sorcerer’s apprentice” and are also concerned to limit the “Brotherhoodisation” of the state.


Brian S. March 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm

There’s now a timeline for the Revolution posted on my blog with links on the key events for anyone who want to clarify the chronology or get further details: http://magpie68.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/timeline-of-the-egyptian-revolution/
I may not be able to respond to the discussion for a couple of days, but I’ll try to catch up as soon as I am free.


Arthur March 6, 2013 at 7:16 am

The article is far too confident about understanding the details of a struggle it simply isn’t possible for any of us to have a good understanding of.

One could reasonably hope to get the broad outlines of what the main contending forces stand for and pick the “right side” in that struggle. From what little I know, I don’t think the article gets even that much right.

Implicitly the article sees the contending forces as islamists engaged in a “drive for power” versus secularists, also described as the opposition, or liberals and leftists, and in the timeline as “revolutionaries”, opposing this. Even though the article is critical of the NSF, that is very much an NSF (and Western media) view of things.

“The revolutionary and liberal vote totalled more than 49% but was spread over several candidates.”

That would imply that Moussa (11.23%) former regime Minister and Fotouh (17.47%) former Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau member, are counted as “liberals” while the Nasserist Sabahi (20.72%) is presumably a “revolutionary” along with some of the remaining candidates that got less than 1% each.

The old regime’s bureaucracy, police, military, judiciary, local “notables” and business “leaders” are still in place so it seems much more plausible to me that the struggle still centers around displacing them and consolidating democracy. Those resisting their displacement naturally describe it as “Brotherhoodization” or an islamist “drive for power”. By posing the issue as secularists vs islamists the NSF, forms a united front not just with Amr Moussa but also much worse regime remnants who always defended the regime on the basis that they were defending secularism against islamism.

We should be quite used by now to pseudo-leftists siding with “secular” autocrats against islamist democrats. Their tactic of boycotting elections reflects the reality that they have no hope of winning and do not accept that the majorty it entitled to govern.

There has never been any reason to doubt that islamist parties would win free elections in most of the region and never any reason to expect either liberals or leftists to have much say. The dismay about this in western media reflects the same complete ignorance of reality that sided with the old regimes.

“There are real possibilities of defeating the Morsi regime, if a combined parliamentary, street, and social opposition can be forged. The raw materials for that already exist: the political groups most consistently associated with the revolution — Sabahi’s Popular Current and Abul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party — would start with the backing of 40% of the electorate.”

In another world that could be a plausible democratic opposition capable of eventually winning a majority. But the reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood, including Fotouh, was the main and leading force of the revolution while the Nasserists (from which the regime originates) have sided with Amr Moussa in an NSF that can only hope to defeat the Brotherhood in alliance with the army and regime remnants.

Fotouh is part of a democratic opposition but the NSF simply isn’t and that is why Fotouh (and other much smaller democratic opposition tendencies) won’t have anything to do with the “liberals” and “leftists” of the NSF.


Pham Binh March 6, 2013 at 11:37 am

The longer the left-liberal alliance with old regime elements persists in the name of fighting “Brotherhoodization” of the state, the more I wonder if there isn’t a strong element of Islamophobia at work among the left-liberals? Even if one agrees with my earlier description of the Brotherhood as counter-revolutionary with respect to the democratic revolution, it makes no sense to form a bloc with Shafiq, Moussa, et. al. against Morsi.

You write, “Their tactic of boycotting elections reflects the reality that they have no hope of winning and do not accept that the majorty it entitled to govern.” I don’t believe this is the case. Sabahi came in a close third behind Morsi and Shafiq in the presidential race; if you add Moussa’s 2.5 million votes to Sabahi’s, clearly the left-liberal bloc could conceivably gain a governing majority. I think their unending boycotts are a reflection of an unwillingness to tangle directly with and fight the Islamists in the state’s institutions, in parliament, in government commissions, and in other bodies.


Arthur March 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm

If by left liberal you mean the Nasserist Sabahi and “moderate” regime remnant Moussa, they are certainly both very hostile to islamists. They are also both muslim (and both nominally support islam being the state religion and sharia a source of law) so I would not call that islamophobic. But they certainly have a phobia about the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are already in a bloc, which is called the “National Salvation Front”. Together with the more open supporters of the old regime they could potentially form a governing majority one day. Without the remnants they cannot. Since they rely on support from the remnants and especially the army and judiciary they have difficulty functioning as a democratic opposition and have devoted all their efforts to preventing free elections that would confirm their minority status.

This isn’t as bad as the Assadists, but there is nothing “left” about it.


Brian S. March 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I’m back to the fray a bit earlier than expected. Article “far too confident”. Perhaps: one of the first things you do when editing a long text into a more manageable one is take out all the modals (I think, in my view, probably etc) – so just insert one of those wherever I make an over- confident assertion and you will get closer to the spirit of my assessment. I agree with Arthur that there are limitations on the robustness of our knowledge at a distance and without access to Arabic language sources. But I don’t think the limits are as severe as he seems to think. I have mostly relied on the english editions of Egyptian media (especially the highly regarded Ahram online); and there are few of my judgements that I haven’t seen a local observer make.
I also agree that the categorisation of groups as “liberal”, “revolutionary”, etc can be a bit arbitrary and fuzzy. So to be clear I regard the “liberals” as Moussa and El Barade, and other minor groups; the “revolutionaries” as Sabahi and Abul Fotouh, and again various small groups. I think I made the latter fairly clear when I talked about the latter as the “most consistently associated with the revolution” (and that is how I am using the term “revolutionary” in this context. It should also be clear from this – that I am not drawing a secular / Islamist dividing line. (Indeed I thought my reference to the NSF basing itself on this schema was clearly a critical one – it was certainly intended to be).
“the Muslim Brotherhood, including Fotouh, was the main and leading force of the revolution while the Nasserists (from which the regime originates)” – extraordinarily muddles. If the Muslim Brotherhood had been the leading force we would still have the military in power. There’s no sense in including Fotouh with the Brotherhood when he was expelled by them, ran against them in the elections, followed a totally different course, and has never looked back; to try and equate Sabahi with the regime on the basis of common roots a half century ago is vacuous.
The real “main and leading force of the revolution” were the “revolutionaries of the street”. And Futouh recognised that, which is what qualifies him ,in my view (note the modal) as a “revolutionary” element.
I understand Binh’s point about the NSF’s “Islamophobia” – we’re seing the same thing and I’ve been groping to find a word for it: I thought at one time of “ultra-secularist” (in analogy with ultra-leftist) but that’s ambiguous. Their basic problem is that they have a paranoid style of politics – they attack their opponents not just for what they’ve done but for what they are convinced they are going to do. (Even when they’ve backed away from bad things that they have done – like Morsi’s retreat on is declaration) So they are boycotting the elections because of what they claim the MB is going to do during them. (that’s not quite fair – but pretty close)
On the other hand – and I’m surprised Arthur’s commendable respect for local knowledge hasn’t kicked in here – the danger of “Brotherhoodisation” is not simply an illusion. The revolutionaries understand the nature of the Brotherhood more intricately than we do. I just think (modal) that Brotherhoodisation needs to be fought in the flesh and not in the fantasy.


Arthur March 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm

1. Many Egyptians still see politics as divided between “Nasserists” on one side and “Islamists” on the other. Hence the mass base for Nasserism. But both Nasserism and islamism are, in different ways, strongly anti-communist and the various “left” groups that capitulated to Nasserism are fundamentally not left at all.

2. Groups like April 6 were “detonators” that took the initiative at Tahrir. The Muslim Brtherhood was more cautious precisely because their own involvement would turn it from a protest into an insurrectionary struggle for power and such things are not launched lightly. Despite media twitterings about a “facebook revolution” it was obvious that they were the main force making it possible to defeat the police repression and that they ultimately decided the strategy and tactics of the revolution. This is especially highlighted by criticisms of their conciliatory attitude to the military. History records that did not result in the military still being in power but in them being eased out of power without major bloodshed. Incidentally even April 6 accepted their leadership on this, eg not working with junior officers to split the military but instead keeping channels open to SCAF and strongly encouraging them to openly take power (in the expectation that there would then be no alternative but to hold free elections).

3. The central issue is whether the main struggle is still to displace the regime elements and consolidate democracy or whether it is now a struggle between islamists and secularists. Naturally people siding with the remnants against “Brotherhoodization” portray themselves as “revolutionaries” and insist that the fight is now between islamism and secularism. But that still happens to be precisely the way the regime ALWAYS portrayed the situation and nobody has even attempted to explain how it suddenly became true while the remnants are still entrenched and democracy still far from consolidated.

4. Claims that the “revolutionaries” understand the Muslim Brotherhood from close up far better than we could are no doubt true. Equally true that the regime did and quite correctly claimed the choice facing Egypt was either the regime or the Brotherhood and not some imaginary liberalism. Equally true that the Brotherhood understands the Nasserists from close up far better than we could.

5. The NSF are not paranoid about what the Muslim Brotherhood might do in elections. They were thoroughly defeated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections already held and have good reason to be certain of the same result. In supporting the army and judiciary in dissolution the elected legislature and attempting to delay elections and prolong transitional military rule they have taken a clear and unambiguous stand against fighting the Muslim Brotherhood democratically because they are in fact opposed to democracy.

6. If they were democrats they would (as you advocate) accept being in opposition and participate in an open struglgle to become a future majority instead of lining up with the remnants. With all necessary caveats, that much is obvious to outsiders. But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion from the simple fact that is not what they are doing, you instead adopt their world view that the struggle is between “secularists (which must include the regime remnants) and “islamists”, which includes the main and leading force that overthrew the regime and won the elections.


Brian S. March 9, 2013 at 7:38 am

@Arthur. I know of no accounts that support your version of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tahrir Square – if you have seen any I would appreciate the references.
The MB leadership was late to join the mass protests, and did so under the pressure of its rank and file and fear of being left behind. I have no doubt that once it did take part it was a significant presence, but it was never among the principal organisers.
After the fall of Mubarak it continued this hesitant pattern – alternating between tailing the mass movement and tailing the military. Initially it refused to support continuing mass mobilisation and urged people to have confidence in SCAF (ie Tantawi). It supported SCAF’s constitutional referendum, which gave the military a free hand to organise the transition as it wished. It initially announced that it would not put up a candidate for the presidency, effectively giving a free run for a military candidate. It reversed this decision very late in the day, under pressure from Aboul Fotouh’s campaign.
The MB is only interested in “displacing regime elements” in order to put their own people in their place. Several of the people he has appointed to his government were ministers under Mubarak – including his Interior Minister. who was a senior state security official at the time of the revolution. And working to replace old regime elements, means they have little interest in dismantling old regime structures – like the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, which they are working to preserve in order to hitch it to their own bandwagon.
The only reason to be certain of an FJP victory in the elections is the disarray of the opposition: Morsi’s popularity has fallen significantly;the Salafists appear to be dumping him; the FJP’s former electoral alliance has disintegrated; and there is discontent among MB youth ranks.


Arthur March 10, 2013 at 5:40 am

A central theme in both the regime’s propaganda and western analysts hostile to the revolution was the danger from the Muslim Brotherhood. If you know of no such accounts you were simply not following the actual struggle but only reading sources you find congenial.

As a result both the Brotherhood and other opposition forces especially emphasized that the Brotherhood was not claiming leadership and most sympathetic commentary stressed that the movement was diffuse and leaderless. In fact that simply confirms there was no other leadership that actually had an organization on the ground. The Brotherhood was neither diffuse nor leaderless, they had a conscious policy of “We are not in the forefront,” “We keep a step behind.”


As I had been expecting the collapse of all the autocracies from the Iraq war and it was considerably delayed I was glued to the screen following events on Al Jazeera etc as they unfolded. It was visibly obvious that only about a quarter of the initial crowds at Tahrir were islamists but when things got tough and many people were intimidated it was equally obvious that it was the Brotherhood that that held fast and visibly organized the defense and became a majority of the crowd at Tahrir (as well as dominating the movement elsewhere).

For other anecdotal accounts by observers see footnotes in the ICG report:


As I already said, the Brotherhood were initially cautioious and did not openly mobilize in support of the January 25 protests until January 23.


They fully committed on January 28 and the the criticisms you mention of their policies towards SCAF etc simply confirm that they were the leadership – ie their policies decided what happened.

“The only reason to be certain of an FJP victory in the elections is the disarray of the opposition…”

The disarray of the opposition is not unrelated to the fact that significant parts of it have now openly entered into an unprincipled alliance with regime remnants.

When the liberals opposed the interim Constitutional referendum in March 2011 the attempt to prolong transitional military rule in order to give them more time to organize before elections could be considered merely tactical and not implying an alignment with the remnants.


But when they backed the “supra-constituional principles” proposed to entrench SCAF in November 2011 it was already clear where they were headed.

Since then the NSF has been organized as an openly anti-democratic alliance between liberals, Nasserists and remnants. Its disarray is thoroughly deserved and permanent.


Brian S. March 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

@Arthur. OK: so we are agreed: the Muslim Brotherhood was not the leading force in the January demonstrations. According to you this was all part of a cunning plan. According to me it was a reflection of the classical wavering of bourgeois forces in a “bourgeois revolution”.
The opposition opposed the March constitutional referendum because it was an abject capitulation to the military that gave SCAF it a free hand to consolidate its power – which it promptly seized . It was this “Yes” vote that facilitated the “prolongation of military rule.”
I don’t know where you get the idea that the opposition “backed the supra-constitutional principles” in November. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/26468/Egypt/Politics-/Egypts-political-forces-throw-down-gauntlet-over-s.aspx
As for “entrenching SCAF” – the current Egyptian constitution incorporates much of the provision from the “supra-condtutional principles” that aimed to do that, courtesy of – the Muslim Brotherhood.


Arthur March 12, 2013 at 5:18 am

This is getting silly. Pretending that you don’t understand the difference between initiating something and leading it and mocking the idea that a leadership can deliberately choose not to be in the forefront contributes nothing to analysis of what’s actually going on.

The march interim constitutional referendum did not put SCAF in power but set a firm timetable for them leaving power. Objections to it from liberals were primarily based on wanting a constitution drafted by “notables” to be in place before elections were held (since everyone understood there would be an islamist majority who would then draft a constitution less congenial to the liberals). As I said, that could be viewed as merely a tactical maneuver rather than a strategic stance against democracy (a very poor maneuver that placed them against a 75% majority).

Its true that your link confirms most of the NSF opposition lined up behind Muslim Brotherhood leadership in ultimately rejecting the “supra-constitutional” communique entrenching SCAF rule. Nevertheless it showed where they were (at that time) headed. The “liberal” opposition were the people who initiated it and the recent NSF campaign is a direct continuation of their orientation all along towards rejecting adoption of a constitution by the people and insisting one one drafted by and acceptable to liberal “notables” instead.


While groups like April 6 did actively participate in the mass protests that prevented this Kemalist coup the dominant nasserist forces of the NSF stayed out of the protests. That showed where they were headed, although they had not yet arrived.


BTW if you take a look at the photo in article above of Tahrir square during an overwhelmingly islamist protest you will notice that it doesn’t look much smaller than Tahrir square during the revolution. This adds some visual confirmation to my comments re the “main force”.

Finally, the whole point of the NSF’s current campaign against the constitution adopted by the Egyptian people is precisely that it does not do what they hoped a “notables” constitution would do for them. Now that they are openly lined up with the regime remnants in posing the struggle as between secularism and islamism instead of as between the remnants and democracy it is simply pointless denying that they have ended up where they were previously headed.


Pham Binh March 12, 2013 at 11:40 am

I’ve been trying to read up on “main force” and “leading force” in the Marxist-Leninist (or Maoist) lexicon but haven’t found anything satisfactory on the topic. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated. I’d like to understand what you’re arguing!


Arthur March 13, 2013 at 2:12 am

I can’t think of references off-hand. I use the terms “main force” and “leading force” in the ordinary plain english sense of those terms, which I have always assumed is the sense intended in Marxist-Leninist classics. (I deliberately avoid the term “vanguard” because it carries a lot of baggage with confused meanings).

The “main force” represents the preponderance or bulk of a movement. The “leading force” refers to the section of the movement that sets the direction by leading the movement in that direction. It is not uncommon for the two to be different or opposed (eg workers as the main force and bourgeois as the leading force in bourgeois revolutions). “Leaders” or “leadership” without the following “force” is also used in a narrower sense expressed by Lenin in part V of “Left-Wing Communism”:

“usually, and in the majority of cases, at least in modern civilized countries, classes are led by political parties; that political parties, as a general rule, are directed by more or less stable groups composed of the most authoritative, influential and experienced members, who are elected to the most responsible positions and are
called leaders”

Both can be distinct from the section that initiates or detonates a movement.

For example in Egypt it is clear that the January 25 protests were initiated by April 6 and other leftists. An inspiring video blog by Asmaa Mahfouz of April 6 played a major role:


But April 6 and the others did not have an organization capable of being a leading force among the broad masses. The Muslim Brotherhood did and once it committed fully (January 28) it quickly became the political leadership in the sense of deciding the direction (overthrow Mubarek, compromise with SCAF, insist on free elections). It was also the main force on the ground in confrontations with regime thugs.


Brian S. March 13, 2013 at 7:36 am

@Arthur. Again all these claims about the leadership role of the MB are an evidence-free-zone. The closest to support from the sources you cite is a statement that
“Secular protesters appreciated the organisation of their Muslim
Brotherhood counterparts. “They were very useful. They
would call up reinforcements because they were getting tired
standing watch, and they were good at organising ‘stone factories’
to create stores of ammunition and improvising barricades.
This is what I was doing. But the people at the frontlines of the
fighting were from the Ultras and the White Knights”.
Or from another region: “Witnesses described fierce fighting in the Nile Delta cities… traditional Brotherhood strongholds, They said the majority of protesters in both were unaffiliated young people, but that Muslim Brotherhood youth turned out in force”

Arthur March 13, 2013 at 7:57 am

Brian. Your selection of the “closest” to supporting evidence from the footnotes is rather odd:

“Another protester said the fighters were
disproportionately Brotherhood men, and women wearing the
typically religious observant headscarf mobilised the ranks. The
day after the fighting started, he said, the number of protesters
dropped precipitously, but Brotherhood attendance was not
down as much.
One of the “wise men” expressed concern regarding the Broth-
ers’ greater determination and sense of mobilisation, evidenced,
he said, by their growing proportion among demonstrators. “I
asked one of the young protesters how much of the crowd in
Tahrir square was Muslim Brotherhood on the first day. He
said 20-25 per cent. I said how many on the last day, still in the
square after the celebrations. He said 50 per cent.”

Arthur March 12, 2013 at 5:35 am

Sorry, I meant to include link confirming that Nasserists (Karema “Dignity” party) along with minor pseudo-leftists like Tagammu et al boycotted the protests against “supra-constitutional” kemalism.



Brian S. March 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I am sorry Arthur: I assumed that you had conceded the point that the MB was not the leading force in Tahrir Square because that’s what your sources said: e.g “The Brotherhood was not at the vanguard of the protest
movement and has not dominated the opposition.” (ICG report p.23) (Its also what every other source I’ve seen says.) But if your in-depth tv watching has told you otherwise, well I guess we’ll just have to give that its due weight.
“The march interim constitutional referendum did not put SCAF in power but set a firm timetable for them leaving power. ” Oh, did it now? Would you care to share with us what that “firm” timetable was? The fact is that in its Constitutional declaration issued BEFORE the referendum SCAF pledged to hand power over within six months. In the declaration that it issued AFTER the referendum SCAF there was no such guarantee. There was however the provision “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces runs the affairs of the State. ” – followed by a slew of detailed stipulations in case anyone didn’t understand exactly what that meant.
I take it that you are acknowledging that your claim that the opposition “backed the supra-constitutional principles” was false – or have I misunderstood that too?


Arthur March 13, 2013 at 2:26 am

Yes, you misunderstood that too. It really does matter that the Nasserists and others boycotted the protests that stopped the kemalist coup. It showed where they were headed, even though they formally opposed the coup.

More importantly, you still not only misunderstand but refuse to engage on the central issue.

According to the NSF, and implicit in your article and comments, the struggle in Egypt is between secularism and islamism, with secular forces resisting an islamist “grab for power” by the Muslim Brotherhood illegitimately hijacking the revolution.

In reality the struggle is still between the remnants of the old regime still entrenched and an unconsolidated newly elected democratic goverment led by the same party that led the overthrow of the old regime. You criticise the NSF for its political incoherence but fail to draw the necessary conclusions from its alliance with regime remnants, the military and judiciary as a substitute for its lack of popular support.

Instead of sniping and “misunderstanding”, why not actually analyse that central issue?


Brian S. March 13, 2013 at 7:20 am

@Arthur. Your floundering around doesn’t change the simple fact that you made an entirely false assertion when you stated that ” the opposition “backed the supra-constitutional principles” . To try and deny this by shifting the argument to one about support for the MB protests is dishonest. And even that move doesn’t rescue you – as the evidence shows it was not “the opposition” that refused to be present in the protests but only one section of it.
You keep going on about the NSF’s collaboration with “the remnants of the old regime” – I agree that this is a bad mistake, but you exaggerate its importance: the groups involved are small and have no political weight. At least you are now clear that this applies only to the NSF and not to “the opposition”.
I have analysed what you claim to be “the central issue” – its just that you don’t like my conclusions: that there is far more collaboration between the MB and the old regime than between the opposition and those forces.

Arthur March 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

1. The link I provided showed clearly that leftist groups like April 6 joined the huge mass protests against the Kemalist coup (which you dismiss as a Muslim Brotherhood protest) while the major NSF forces (of whom the Nasserists are by far the most important, but also El Baradei’s “National Association for Change”) did not actually fight at all.

2. It is pointless denying that this showed where they were headed, since they have now arrived at their destination.

3. I have consistently referred to either the Nasserists or the NSF when talking about them except for one mention of the “liberal” opposition (quoting claims that it was specifically liberals who initiated the “supra-constitutional” Kemalist stuff). You keep trying to blur this with a vague “the opposition”.

4. Whatever criticisms you may have of the MB’s compromises with the military it is a simple reality that the NSF’s entire orientation is towards getting from the military and the judiciary what they could not get in free elections. Their denunciations of collaboration between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are in fact denunciations of the military for not acting more vigorously to restrain the democratically elected government as they demand.


Brian S. March 13, 2013 at 9:13 am

@Arthur. This is a response to your previous post – but for some reason the “reply” button wasn’t available for that.
My apologies – I read the ICG report too hastily, and missed these quotes, which I accept are relevant and significant. But I never disputed that the MB, once it decided to commit itself, was an important component of the protests nor that it was likely to punch above its weight because of its greater degree of organisation. That’s obvious. What is under dispute is your claim that the MB was the “leading force” in Tahrir. These notes reinforce the first assessment – but not this claim.


Arthur March 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

Yes, those quotes relate to being the “main” force rather than leading.

As already mentioned their political leadership is confirmed by your criticism of it. Unlike some others the various stances they took (including both cooperation with the military and standing up to the attempted kemalist coup and insisting on free elections) were not abstract “calls” for somebody to take a “stand”. They determined a line of march which was followed by a large mass based cadre party which was able to lead the whole movement (without presenting itself as being in the forefront).

The stands their leaders decided to take were, for good or ill, the stands that were taken, not just called for.

PS It would be very difficult not to be the leading force at Tahrir when you are a disciplined force including a quarter of the protesters and there is no other clear center of leadership. It would obviously be impossible to not be the leading force when you are about half the total.


Brian S. March 13, 2013 at 11:16 am

@Arthur. I’d suggest you go back to ikhwanweb and review the shifting positions of the MB in the course the Egyptian revolution. The idea that they had a clear and constant “line of march” is just a fantasy.
They were on the winning side in the March referendum not because they had won the masses to some long term vision. but because people were tired after the prolonged turmoil and wanted to get back to some semblance of normality. Giving SCAF what it wanted seemed like the quickest way of doing that, and the MB played to this feeling.

Arthur March 13, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Yes, 75% of the electorate agreed with the Muslim Brotherhood that an orderly transition would be better than prolonged turmoil.

As explained above the issue for opponents of the March referendum was that they wanted to draft a constitution by an unelected group (ie ultimately acceptable to SCAF) before free elections instead of by an elected group resulting from free elections as ultimately happened and to which the NSF remain violently opposed.

I did not say, and do not believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has won the masses to their long term vision. They have joined in and led the general demand for an end to the autocracy and will now find their claim that “Islam is the solution” does not actually work.

Brian S. March 7, 2013 at 5:43 am

A bit off topic : but two strikingly similar graphic responses to recent announcements of western aid to the Syrian rebels:
One from the Guardian’s Steve Bell: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cartoon/2013/mar/06/steve-bell-syria-rebels-cartoon?CMP=twt_gu
The other from Syrian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj:http://i.imgur.com/RfwmbJL.jpg


Aaron Aarons March 9, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Not only has there not been a revolution in Egypt, but there is nothing revolutionary about the perspectives offered by any of the writers on this page. We get Arthur Dent’s ongoing fascination with electoral majoritarianism dressed up as ‘democracy’, while others focus on secularism vs. Islamism. There is almost no mention of class, except in a bourgeois-sociological way, and no mention of worker or peasant struggles at all. Nor is their any mention of one of the few positive results of the defeat of Mubarak: the (limited) weakening of the position of the Zionists vis-a-vis the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.

Any genuine left in Egypt will not ally with any bourgeois faction to become part of the government or the state, but will, while allying with various factions against other factions in direct actions over various issues, only use elections, and parliamentary seats that might be won, as platforms to mobilize workers, peasants, women, etc., and their allies for various real struggles.


Brian S. March 9, 2013 at 7:04 pm

@Aaron This does rather ignore the lengthy discussions that we’ve had on this site about how to characterise the major political upheavals that we are dealing with. I accept that you may not agree with those of us who espouse a notion of “democratic revolutions” but its not very useful to simply pretend the discussion has never taken place. I certainly regard the “Egyptian (democratic) revolution” as an ongoing process – not a done deal.
I’m not sure how your concept of class differs from my apparently “bourgeois sociological “one, but I do offer a class characterisation of the Muslim brotherhood. Its my intention to discuss the workers movement , and related social struggles in a second part.
I agree with you about the importance of the international political implications of the Egyptian revolution, but this was intended as the opening of a discussion thread, not a definitive analysis – please feel free to join the discussion and offer your views on this or any other pertinent matters.
The issue you raise of what sort of class alliances could be used to take the revolution forward is pertinent. If I understand you correctly your are saying that it is legitimate for the left to ally with particular bourgeois fractions around specific issues, but not to enter a government with them. That sounds to me very like the Menshevik position that Lenin polemicised against in 1905. But I’m not convinced that there is a bourgeois fraction capable of playing a progressive role – in so far as the Muslim Brotherhood represented such a layer it has pretty much played that out. The alliances that I think ar relevant are between the working class, the peasantry, and various fractions of the petit bourgeoisie – what I would designate as the “popular classes”.


Pham Binh March 13, 2013 at 9:56 am

Brian: “You [meaning Arthur] keep going on about the NSF’s collaboration with ‘the remnants of the old regime’ – I agree that this is a bad mistake, but you exaggerate its importance: the groups involved are small and have no political weight. At least you are now clear that this applies only to the NSF and not to ‘the opposition’.”

The NSF is not small and does have political weight.

Arthur’s argument is that NSF’s collaboration with regime remnants is not a mistake but a logical outcome of their anti-democratic politics. I’m inclined to agree with him since the forces that make up the NSF appear to be hell-bent on boycotting every post-Mubarak election.


Brian S. March 14, 2013 at 3:39 pm

@Binh Sorry, syntax problem:”the groups involved” was a reference to the remant groups in the NSF, not to the NSF itself, which clearly embraces most of the liberal and nasserist opposition. You could argue otherwise by including Moussa in this category, but I don’t see him as “felool, although its possible that he is providing an umbrella for the remnants to shelter under. There are several splinters from Mubarak’s NDP but they are very small and fragmented. There have been a number of felool demonstrations and petitions in recent days calling for a return to military rule, but they have been totally isolated, demos no more than 100, petitions no more than 1000 signatures.
I don’t agree with either of you that the opposition is “anti-democratic”. If you have a purely formal concept of “democracy” (which Arthur does) Morsi has unquestionable democratic authority; but if you have any kind of substantive or critical notion of democracy then (as I argued in my piece) democratic legitimacy in Egypt is contestable (low turnout in key elections; Morsi’s failure to seek any kind of consensus for the key “framework” document of the constitution). I think in this situation the opposition is not entitled to claim the moral high ground (that does assume a secular/islamist divide) but it is entitled to demand that Morsi adopts a more modest and consensual approach. That’s at the level of principle.
At the level of strategy the NSF’s conduct is a huge mistake – it drives the MBs base back around its leadership and creates a fruitless and violent polarisation. (Although, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be affecting the Salafists – which might tell us something).


Arthur March 14, 2013 at 8:59 pm

I love the way actualy fighting a kemalist coup is portrayed as purely “formal” democracy while Amr Moussa, former regime foreign Minister is a democrat and the Nasserists are revolutionaries.

There is something about use of the word “formal” as a prefix to “democracy” that brands the user as an apologist for some “informal” direct attack on democracy.


Brian S. March 17, 2013 at 4:00 pm

@ Arthur 1. Moussa may have been regime foreign minister but that was 12 years ago and he was an internal critic of the regime even then, and was farmed out to the Arab League for just that reason. I suspect he is probably as much a “democrat” now as Morsi. but my principal point is simply that he cannot just be characterised as “felool”; and if you don’t include him in that category then your preoccupation with the “felool” in the NSF is exaggerated -to include them is both unprincipled and strategically wrong, but it has little practical political impact.
2. There is neither a prospect of nor a demand for a “kemalist coup” – apart from a few totally marginal felool groups.
I have just sent in the text of Part II of my piece – plenty in that for you to disagree with I would guess. So we can continue the discussion in that thread once it is up, if you are so inclined.


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