Egypt’s Military Warns Junior Partner: The Redux

The symmetry was perfect. The same message was delivered two years apart, to the day. On 29 January 2011, then Field Marshal Tantawi refused then President Mubarak’s request that the army quell the protests seizing Egypt, telling him instead that he had to negotiate with the protestors. On 29 January 2013, the Egyptian military, now headed by General al-Sisi, said: “[t]he continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations.” Both messages warn the military’s junior partner in governing that it risks replacement lest it arrest the instability threatening the military’s extensive material interests in the Egyptian political economy.
No society is ever governed by only one social force. Societies are always governed by a configuration of social forces. Moreover, the governing bloc never rules by force alone. Governing involves some consenting to be ruled, while others are coerced. These axioms apply to even the most absolutist governments. Fascistic regimes are alignments of industrial capitalists, the petty-bourgeoisie and militias. Authoritarian regimes in the imperialized world configure a military and at least one propertied class, large land owners or a monopoly capital class tied to the state for example. In both cases, chauvinistic nationalism and direct violence are the primary ideological and coercive mechanisms deployed by the governing bloc against the interests of labor and the peasantry. In the imperialized world, the regime often also collaborates with powerful social forces of the global order. This collaboration serves the interests of the governing configuration and the forces of the global order at the expense of dominated groups in the imperialized society.
In February 2011, prominent public intellectuals rushed to declare the events in Egypt a revolution. On Al-Jazeera, Tariq Ramadan repeatedly asserted: “[t]his is a revolution.” On the same broadcast, Slavo Zizek made much the same point: “the struggle for freedom [in Egypt] is what is universal and creates solidarity between people.” Zizek articulated similar ideas in two articles he wrote for the Guardian. In “Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit?” Zizek explained: “[i]n the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope.” And in “For Egypt, this is the miracle of Tahrir Square” he said: “[t]he demand was for Mubarak to go, and thus open the space for freedom in Egypt, a freedom from which no one is excluded.” Finally, Rashid Khalidi celebrated the “revolution” in Egypt for the new possibilities it opened and the manner in which it challenged Orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims.
Al-Sisi could issue his warning precisely because the public intellectuals were wrong. Egypt did not experience a revolution in 2011. It did not see a smashing of the repressive state apparatus in the Marxist sense. It did not see anything but the briefest realization of freedom in the more limited Arendtian sense. And it did not see the violence required by all revolutionary traditions.
In 2011, Egyptians experienced another military coup. More precisely, first the military, as the most powerful force in the country, displaced its junior partner, the monopoly capital class represented by Gamal Mubarak, when the partner became an untenable liability. Then, the military secured the Muslim Brotherhood, representative of the competitive capital class, as its junior partner. This replacement of one junior partner with another amounted to a restoration of the prevailing political order in the sense that another sector of capital had consented to govern with the military while Egypt’s subordinate and supportive position in the global order, and the rents the military derives from maintaining that position, were perpetuated.
The Muslim Brotherhood was an ideal candidate for junior partnership for two political-economic reasons. First, ideologically and materially, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are enemies of labor and the peasantry. Second, the Muslim Brotherhood’s election to parliament and then the presidency bestowed the military’s governing configuration with a bourgeois democratic legitimacy increasingly sought by the global order. Ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood serves the military’s interests while providing its order with a democratic fig leaf the Mubarak regime did not.
It is through this political-economic lens that recent events in Suez, Ismailia and Port Said should be understood. The political arrangements in the governates make obvious the reconfigured partnership. The governors are former members of the military; major generals all. The governor of Port Said, Ahmed Abduallah, was appointed by the military in 2011. As president, Morsi allowed the Port Said governor to retain his position when he appointed Samir Aglan governor of Suez in 2012. Then there is the disciplinary spectacle being made of the three governates. While ostensibly about controlling violence and protecting the canal zone’s revenue, the recently declared states of emergency are covers for disciplining recalcitrant social forces, specifically workers, in Egypt. Port Said has a long history of worker mobilizations dating back to the British occupation. In December 2012, steel workers in Suez went on strike, and in January 2013, transportation workers did the same. The military-Muslim Brotherhood configuration does not want disobedience spreading throughout the Egyptian body politic. The states of emergency are making examples of disobedient workers in the canal zone such that workers in other parts of Egypt will discipline themselves, their co-workers and their demands. The Brotherhood had best not fail this charge.
Those with wealth and power never abdicate. This is why revolutionary change demands violence – real wealth and power is only ever forcibly redistributed. Make no mistake – the Egyptian military is keenly aware of this. That is obvious in its constant invocation of the values of security and stability. These are not universal values. When the military speaks of security and stability it means the perpetuation of its political order; the order which subjects the majority of Egyptians to the structural violence of poverty. And the military has again warned that it will use direct violence on an even larger scale to perpetuate its political order.
Al-Sisi’s warning is dire for some social forces. It also provides those same social forces important opportunities. It is a chance for Egypt’s exploited social forces to transcend the contrived doctrine of a harmony of interests and, finally, realize and act on the fact that the army and the people are not one hand. It is also a chance for those same social forces to determine if the moment has arrived to match the military’s violence with their own. Violence, after all, begets violence. Either the ideological and organizational work has been done such that they will have the societal support necessary to successfully deploy direct violence, or it has not, and then they need to better position themselves for the political battles which are most assuredly to come. Sean F. McMahon is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. He is co-editor, with Dan Tschirgi and Walid Kazziha, of Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013) and author of The Discourse of Palestinian-Israeli Relations (London: Routledge, 2010).