Lessons from the Egyptian Revo

I’ve been following events throughout North Africa and Arabia now since early December, and, particularly, in Egypt over the last two weeks. I haven’t had the time to fully sit down and distill my thoughts on the Tunisian and now Egyptian revo’s, but below are my brief thoughts on the current Egyptian revo, and what can be learned from it.

First off, the Egyptian revo, in its current form, is not a socialist revolution.
There are some socialists involved, but they are not (by far) the majority, nor is the revo putting forth socialist demands. What the revo is, at the moment, is a national democratic revolution, a revolt against authoritarian capitalism in its Egyptian form under President Mubarak. However, there is the potential for the revo to develop beyond the simple demand for Western liberal democracy and towards popular democracy, in both the economic and territorial spheres. Revolutionary consciousness grows in leaps and bounds under these circumstances, and the it is not clear how this will develop. It is possible that Egypt (and Tunisia) will follow the path of Brazil or Portugal, where the authoritarian regimes were overthrown and replaced with liberal democracy. However, this sets the foundation for a further revolution that goes beyond liberal democracy and liberal capitalism. This stage can be missed however, and to say that there are stages of transition is mistaken. The revo can be deepened to go beyond the objective of liberal democracy, but that depends on both revolutionary consciousness and events elsewhere (a successful revo elsewhere, at the same time, can further boost the revo’s development).

The revo is not ‘led’. There is no ‘revolutionary party’ in the Leninist sense of a vanguard which is coordinating demonstrations, or putting forth demands. Instead, the revo is organic and grassroot. There is no leader, although there are various ‘leaders’ vying for that position (the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Baredi, etc.). What we are seeing instead is that the revo is largely self-organising, and that it also develops a council (or committee) system. This is seen in the voluntary organisations springing up to defend their neighbourhoods, groups spontaneously organising street cleaning, acquistion of medical and food supplies, defence of the Egyptian Museum, construction of barricades, self-defence of the revo in street battles, and so on. So far this does not seem to have spread into the economic sphere, of factories being self-managed by the workers, but having experienced self-management during the active phase of the revo, it would not be surprising if this later transfers into the workplace.

There are pros and cons to this. At a pro, it is not easily coopted by leaders willing to accept compromises. Nor can the revo be defeated through a decapitation tactic from the State. Being leaderless, the revo creates leaders as and when they are needed; taking one out only means a new leader replaces the former, hydra like. As a con, the revo is somewhat directionless. Its coordination can be sporadic, and the superior organisation of the State and the ruling class can threaten to outflank the revo. Particularly difficult for the revo is that it is not clear what its demands are, beyond a general sense of revolt, liberation and opposition to the status quo. This means that the revo looses some valuable time, in which the State and the ruling classes are able to regroup and formulate a counter-revo; it also means that the revo looses the ability to easily capture some key positions and resources (the means of communication, means of energy generation, control of transport, etc.). These positions can be gained by the revo later, but at greater cost.

The key lesson from this is that the role of the ‘revolutionary party’ is not to organise or direct the revolution, but instead to help shape the consciousness of the revo, to try and articulate the position of the revo and to warn (and help defend) against the counter-revolution. The revolutionary party must study past revo’s in order to help inform the current revo. In the event that the revo falls to the counter-revo, the revolutionary party must try and salvage the lessons of the failed revo, and maintain the ‘spirit’ of the revo until the next revolutionary moment. It must also seek to deepen class consciousness through opposing the status quo hegemony, developing a theoretical critique of the status quo. While class consciousness develops at a much accelerated speed during the active phase of the revo, the prepatory work of the revolutionary party in the non-revolutionary period can help provide a greater foundation for the acceleration of consciousness during the revo, and allow the revo to better defend itself against a counter-revo.

The division in the security forces is key. Had the military actively backed the police and paramilitary forces of the State, the revo would have been slowed considerably, and potentially postponed indefinitely. The military’s statement earlier in the week that they would not fire on the revo boosted the confidence of the revo, and expanded its reach. However, the military cannot neccessarily be depended on or trusted. While the military did not actively oppose the revo, it also did not actively support it. There is no such thing however as neutrality, and the military’s inaction regarding the counter-revolutionary attacks on the revo (in Tahir Square today, February 2nd, 2011) lost it a good degree of credibility in the eyes of many who had thought the military had joined the revo. Neutrality in this aspect translated into passive support of the counter-revo forces, and this will be remembered by the revolutionary forces. It remains unclear however to what degree the military itself is split, although its earlier statements indicate the split is significant.

Events have shown that once consent to the rule of the status quo is lost, which was indicated by the revo’s strength, then the State and ruling classes switch from ideological hegemony to the hegemony of force. The State has superior force, but the passivity of the military has reduced its capacity. The other armed forces of the State appear to have lost the formal battles over the weekend and have retreated to asymetric warfare, in the form of plainsclothed bodies of armed men. The counter-revolution tries to divide the revolutionary forces through the threat of violence (both organised and disorganised), co-option of revolutionary leaders (or percieved leaders) or concession to some revo demands. We see this in the State’s offer to negotiate with the Opposition (giving them legitimacy, and co-opting them), the use of formal forces (riot-police), armed irregulars (mostly plains-clothed paramilitary), looters (identified as plainsclothed police by many), and in the concession to some of the revolutionary demands (Mubarak will not contest the next election; some constitutional reforms, etc.). The tactics of the counter-revolution needs to be studied by the revolutionary party in order to inform the defence of the revo (or future revo’s).

Revolution’s cause ripples. The Egyptian revo today would be unlikely to have occurred (or at least not to the same degree and success) without the Tunisian revo. Why the Tunisian revo succeeded is a different question, but it is clear that its success inspired, or, more poetically, provided the spark for the flame of revolution in Egypt and elsewhere. The USA worry about a ‘domino effect’, as they formulated it during the Cold War, is correct. Should the Egyptian revo succeed it is likely that it will send even larger ripples of revolution, and it is not clear where the next revolutionary event would occur as a result. Yemen, Morroco, Sudan, Iran and Iraq are all possible contenders, and revolutionary movements are already forming in all of these areas (particularly in Yemen). However, just as revolutions can cause ripples, so can counter-revolutions. Should the counter-revolutionary forces defeat the revo, this will embolden other authoritarian States in the region, and also demoralise revolutionary forces in those other countries.

The revo only became reality (and not merely an oppositional movement) due to the economic crisis. The critique of authoritarianism is not new, but the economic crisis weakened the ability of these regimes to maintain the hegemonic consent over the population. Quite frankly, the economic life of the people reached a critical point, at which they could no longer bear the hardship of authoritarianism. This indicates that the revolutionary moment is tied to the economic cycle, and that the role of the revolutionary party outside of the economic crisis (and subsequent revolutionary moment) is to develop the opposition to the status quo; this opposition will transform into the revo when the opportunity presents itself, and the better developed the opposition to the status quo during the non-revolutionary period, the greater (in deepening and efficacy) of the revo when it comes.

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One thought on “Lessons from the Egyptian Revo

  1. Pingback: Cyborg Revolutions « "Catch a fire"

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