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.

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