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Democratic revolution and the Arab Spring: addressing the myth of permanent revolution in Egypt

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A recent article by the Revolutionary Left Current (RLC), a Trotskyite microsect with some members in Syria and abroad, entitled ‘The revolutionary left processes caught in the grip of reactionary forces’, strongly articulates some of the problems with the general take of traditional leftist forces to the ‘Arab revolutions’. Moreover, it starkly displays why the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, which was a genuine attempt by Trotsky in particular historic circumstances to establish a sociology of revolution, is now wielded as a dogmatic filter through which reality is squeezed – a mode of mere self-justification rooted in the mentality and posturing of the sect.

The actualities and material realities of the ‘Arab revolutions’ therefore play second fiddle to what is now, by any standard, an anachronistic dogma. If the left is to keep itself relevant as any kind of meaningfully ‘internationalist’ force, which is a big if, it has to engage with reality and the world as it is, as opposed to how it wants it to be. The dominant trends of the left when it comes to relating to the so-called ‘Arab spring’ have been either reactionary campism, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are subordinated to invariably vacuous ‘geopolitical’ stratagems rooted in the simplistic, binary worldview of Stalinism, or in the aforementioned sectish obsessions with ‘permanent revolution’, wherein revolutionary forces and movements are discarded, ignored and ultimately subordinated to dogmatic self-vindication.

For the purposes of brevity, I will only deal with the part of the article that deals with Egypt, but the authors’ erroneous take on the situation in Egypt, and the underlying ‘theoretical’ mechanics behind such error, applies to their take on all of the Arab revolutions. Moreover, I’ll also use this article to make general observations about the way these leftist forces have reacted to and interacted with the Arab revolutions. It should also be noted that this isn’t some mere theoretical quarrel – the authors of this article, the RLC, following their Revolutionary Socialist (RS) comrades in Egypt, were one of the loudest supporters of the counterrevolutionary Tamarod movement and the June 30 protests that led to the overthrow of the Egyptian democracy and the murderously brutal mass repression that is now being inflicted mostly on supporters of the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, but also on any dissenting forces, regardless of ideology.

This is important because it’s precisely these errors that led both RLC and their comrades, for all their pontificating about ‘reactionaries’ and their mass denunciations of ‘counterrevolutionaries’, to uncritically and enthusiastically support the counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt – right up to and indeed after the bodies started dropping. Indeed, as late as July 17, 2013, the RLC, once again mirroring their comrades in the RS, were calling the events of July 3 ‘a people’s revolution’. Moreover, while they briefly acknowledging and condemning the, erm, ‘murders committed against [the Muslim Brotherhood] by the army’, they were still massively optimistic about the overthrowing of democracy by a movement supported by every counterrevolutionary force in the country, from the former members and political remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) to high level members of the security forces. They even signed the piece off with ‘Viva the permanent revolution’. Oddly enough, they don’t mention any of this in the current article.

To put it as starkly as possible: in the eyes of the authors of this article, the democratic election of Morsi and his transitional government equated to a counterrevolution, while the overthrow of democracy by the most reactionary force in the country equated to a ‘revolution’. This isn’t merely topsy-turvy; it’s political insanity. So, while they have the barefaced audacity to say that the Muslim Brotherhood have not ‘made a deep self-criticism of its period in power’, which they classify as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’, which I can only assume is how they characterise winning democratic elections and attempting to balance transitional democratic governance against a fundamentally anti-democratic ‘deep state’, they themselves have clearly not reflected at all on the folly that led to them supporting the actual counterrevolution.

As I mentioned before, the folly in question is mainly shaped by an adherence to the dogma of ‘permanent revolution’, but this is itself absorbed by the wider cliquishness, itself shaped by elitism, which afflicts the liberal and left forces that have been active in and around the Arab revolutions. The fundamental contradiction for these forces in Egypt was that while they were the ones who were media savvy, who had blogs and maintained websites, and who had a good relationship with certain sections of the regional and western media networks, this is pretty much all they had. Their participation in the January 25 revolution was mostly defined by all of this, but they had absolutely no social base whatsoever.

So, when this context is combined with their adherence to ‘permanent revolution’, which states that no revolution can be ‘complete’ or even a genuine revolution unless it is ‘socialist’, the reasons why these forces supported the counterrevolution should become a bit clearer. Nowhere in any of their output is the corresponding notion of democracy, and the notion of the Arab revolutions as national democratic revolutions against ‘secular’ tyrannies, taken as anything other than a mechanism of counterrevolution.

In Tunisia, the successful creation of a multi-party democratic system and the subsequent elections in which the Tunisian people participated freely, is treated as some sort of counterrevolutionary side show to these great movements of reaction, whether it’s the Islamists of Ennadha or the former regime forces of Nidaa Tounis, the two largest democratic forces in the country. It’s perfectly true that from a socialist perspective neither of these forces is particularly progressive, but then these are the forces that the Tunisian people, the people who overthrew Ben Ali, have chosen, namely because the revolution against Ben Ali was a national democratic ‘bourgeois’ one and not a socialist one. It’s one thing to make arguments against these forces from the left, but to term them as ‘counterrevolutionary’ somewhat misses the point.

The dimensions of this error in Tunisia are such that they can merely be dismissed as an inanity, but in Egypt, the error of selectively dismissing non-socialist forces, in particular, the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP - the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) as ‘counterrevolutionary’, led these forces to enthusiastically support counterrevolution as ‘revolution’, while, to be crude about it, providing a small amount of ‘left cover’ to these mass counterrevolutionary forces. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these forces, overlapping with reactionary liberals and nationalists, as they did with the organisation known as Tamarod, came to see the post-January 25 democracy itself as ‘counterrevolutionary’; hence these later accusations that the parliamentary elections of 2011-2012, of which the FJP won by a landslide, and the subsequent victory of Morsi against the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential election of 2012, were ‘fake’ and ‘unrepresentative’, which was the raison d’etre of the entire Tamarod campaign.

It’s here that the aforementioned elitism and cliquishness comes into play more decisively. The fact that the forces that the authors of this article see as being genuinely ‘revolutionary’ were extremely marginal was made flesh by the institution of a democratic system in the post-January 25 period. When for the first time millions of Egyptians cast their votes in these elections, these left forces gained absolutely no electoral representation, mainly because they themselves represent no one on the national level. The millions of Egyptians who voted and participated in the democratic elections did not appear out of nowhere – they were the ones who also participated in and supported the revolution against Mubarak. Indeed, they were the solid base of the revolution. The problem was that while the focus was on ‘The Square’, these media savvy and connected Cairene activists, with all their rhetoric, could hold forth, but when it came to the actualities of what was a national democratic revolution, they literally melted away into irrelevance. Given the chance, the Egyptian people overwhelmingly voted for what was the leading force, in terms of numbers, of the democratic revolution, which was the FJP.

These leftist forces gained absolutely no electoral representation in the parliamentary elections – the main opposition to the FJP was the Salafist Hizb al-Nour, the pro-military national liberals of Al-Wafd and the various different political parties that had been formed out of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. After this, the ‘deep state’, having now to balance the maintenance of its own interests with a genuinely revolutionary democratic awakening, plunged it support into the counterrevolutionary candidacy of Ahmed Shafik in the presidential elections. Despite this, Mohamed Morsi of the FJP won a narrow but massively significant victory over Shafik in yet another victory for the democratic revolution over those forces that wanted to curtail and counter it.

It’s in the year that followed Morsi’s victory that the authors of this article have to portray the alleged rule of the Muslim Brotherhood as being ‘counterrevolutionary’ and ‘authoritarian’; indeed, the slogan was at the time that Morsi was no different than Mubarak or was merely a stooge of or collaborator with the military (others went further, of course, saying that Morsi was worse than Mubarak). Holding these positions necessarily entails a rather striking piece of cognitive dissonance – one must believe that Morsi was simultaneously the same as or no different to Mubarak, basically no threat to the ruling order, yet also worthy of the entire ‘deep state’, including every pro-Mubarak force in the country, from the security forces to the judiciary, mobilising against to overthrow. Of course, the easiest way to observe the difference between Morsi and a truly authoritarian and counterrevolutionary era is to just compare the one year of Morsi’s democratic rule, with the freedoms that this allowed, with the gravity and the brutality of the situation now after July 3 and under Al-Sisi, with even the most basic rights won during January 25 completely annihilated.

I’m not making the case that Morsi, in terms of his overall policy, represented a radical break from the politics of Mubarak, but the fact that he was a democratically elected leader who could have been removed democratically, was a genuine radical break from Mubarak, one that was, by its very existence, antagonistic to all the forces that Mubarak represented. However, in order for the authors and their comrades to fully justify their support for the counterrevolution, they had to make the case that Morsi and the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ were somehow counterrevolutionary. On a brief side note, I put quotation marks around the name Muslim Brotherhood only because the Muslim Brotherhood were never in power. The government formed by Morsi headed by the non-politically aligned Prime Minister Hesham Qandil was, as a transitional government, mostly comprised of centrist technocrats who were neither members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the FJP. Moreover, Morsi never had majority control over any of the state apparatuses. Saying ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’, in all its sinister glory, was ‘in power’ is at the very worst a lazy overstatement and, as we have seen, at the very worst, an attempt at fearmongering.

But does the claim that Mohamed Morsi was counterrevolutionary really stand up? This once again depends on what you mean by ‘revolutionary’ in the first place, but given that the only observable dynamic of the revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt was between democratic and anti-democratic forces and not socialists and capitalists, then Morsi certainly wasn’t a counterrevolutionary of any conceivable kind. If we also remember that not one serious force in the country was calling for or capable of overthrowing the Armed Forces, then we also can’t blame Mohamed Morsi for the crime of being a civil democratic president working within the confines of the Egyptian state with the Armed Forces as a veritably praetorian ruling class, one that as an institution enjoys wide popularity among the public. Any elected force, socialist or not, would have had to reckon with the military upon what was within the limits of possibility. The different forms of antagonism that existed between Morsi and the Armed Forces are there for all to see, most notably his constant battles with the Supreme Constitutional Court, which worked on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In reality, Morsi became a bête noire for all different kinds of forces in Egypt, while the anti-democratic opposition became a blank screen upon which the authors of this article and their comrades projected their own ideological obsessions and their own delusional and cliquish demands. So, June 30 and Tamarod became an uprising ‘of the working and popular classes’ against Morsi’s alleged ‘neoliberalism’, despite the fact that the main forces behind and supporting Tamarod were more neoliberal than the FJP, with the added dimension of being anti-democratic. For liberal feminists, the June 30 movement became about women’s rights (or what Trotksyites call a ‘social revolution’), despite the fact that the same forces that unleashed the rapists and sexual terrorists of the government-sponsored baltagiya (literally: hatchet men) on protesters were among the crowds that overthrew Morsi. For street vendors in Cairo, the movement became about how Morsi was responsible for the drying up of tourists, despite the fact that Morsi couldn’t control the security situation due to the dissent of the ‘deep state’. In truth, the major political forces behind Tamarod and June 30 comprised a constellation of anti-democratic actors, from within and without the state, with different motivations, but all united behind the overthrow of Morsi. The fact is that despite Morsi being socially conservative and basically supporting economic liberalism, it was the left that collapsed into the anti-democratic counterrevolutionary movement against him.

The forces that mobilised behind the Shafik campaign at first wanted to use democracy to stamp out democracy, but due to democratic awakening could not do so, so they then sought to plunge their resources into ensuring that all opposition to Morsi was contained within an anti-democratic vehicle that could be used to mobilise popular opposition to subvert democracy. Instead of the opposition to Morsi organising on a democratic basis, they began to, in conjunction with the mobilisation of the ‘deep state’, chip away at the already fragile foundations of the post-January 25 Egyptian democracy, but this time it would take the form of the revolution itself, i.e. it would use civil disobedience and it would occupy Tahrir Square, in order to institute what amounted to a counterrevolution.

This is the point that the authors of this article and their Egyptian comrades in the RS began to converge with the counterrevolutionary forces through the Tamarod movement, which despite being directly aided by the security forces, was at least on the surface of things a ‘grassroots’ organisation that united ‘youth activists’ behind a campaign to gather signatures to force Mohamed Morsi to step down as president. It’s in this context that the authors of the RLC blog and their comrades can with a straight face indicate that Morsi’s election didn’t count and wasn’t actually real democracy, scalding those who called the military coup a coup at the time as having a ‘lack of understanding’ of the ‘deep uprising to pursue the objectives of the revolution’ behind the security forces-aided Tamarod campaign to gather signatures to overthrow a democratically elected president. So, while the authors of the blog and their comrades discarded the Egyptian democracy, in which tens of millions of Egyptians participated, they then uncritically supported the Tamarod campaign, which subverted formal democracy by declaring, without any plausible verification, to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the military to remove Morsi or for Morsi to stand down.

At the risk of repetition, let's just take a moment here to understand the mechanics of this according to the authors of the RLC blog: formal democracy, which yields victories for the FJP and reveals the left-liberal Cairene elites to have zero national support, is considered by the latter forces and their comrades, such as the authors of the blog, to be wholly 'meaningless'. However, the Tamarod campaign, supported openly by counterrevolutionaries from Ahmed Shafik to the security forces, which claims without any credible evidence to have gained 22 million signatures calling for the democratic process to be subverted, and which holds joint press conferences in Cairo with the authors of the blog's friends in the 'Revolutionary Socialists' and 'April 6 Youth Movement' etc., is somehow to be taken as legitimate?

There was nothing analytical or even principled about this - the combination of this dogmatic and stupefying adherence to ‘’permanent revolution’ and the wider dynamic of elitism and cliquishness meant that groups were being swayed and pulled by all different kinds of reactionary and counterrevolutionary forces. This is why even days and months after the coup (which they refused to call a coup), they were still so enthusiastic about the counterrevolution, disseminating the bizarre idea that the July 3 coup was ‘anti-imperialist’ and that the major forces involved in the June 30 movement, which included Neo-Nasserists and opportunistic anti-MB liberals, to political forces formerly aligned with Mubarak’s NDP and members of the security forces, were somehow ambivalent or wary of the military.

Indeed, RS even issued a statement incoherently declaring those who correctly called the events of July 3 a military coup as being part of a ‘conspiracy’ between ‘the Brotherhood’ and ‘America’. Such was the extent to which they had been caught up in the hysterical ultranationalist conspiratorial surge of the June 30 movement, a group like the RS clearly failed to notice, or more likely simply didn’t care about because it didn’t fit the narrative, that the US itself had supported the overthrow of Morsi and, like the RS, had refused to call what occurred a coup. Due to their dismissal of the formal democratic system that had been won by the January 25 uprising and their selective designation of pro-democratic non-socialist forces, such as the FJP, as ‘counter-revolutionary’, plus the subsequent necessary pretence that the non-socialist Tamarod movement was connected to the working classes and progressive, the authors of this blog and their comrades ended up as one small but influential (especially in the west among socialists) component of what was a wholly counterrevolutionary movement. Even if some of the forces contained within the movement had genuine grievances against the Morsi government, the fact that they sought to join with the most reactionary anti-democratic forces in the country to overthrow a democratically elected leader renders their action as counterrevolutionary by definition.

The fact that these groups, including the authors, have sought to write their support for the counterrevolution in Egypt out of their own history is evident of the fact that they clearly have no will to self-reflect or engage with reality as it occurs. Instead of an engagement with any of the forces that comprise the democratic national revolutions across the Arab world, the authors of this blog continue on with sloganeering, denunciations and analysis based less on material reality and more on attempting to fit reality around a preconceived, ossified and anachronistic dogma. It’s in this dismal spirit that these forces continue to ignore those pro-democracy forces in Egypt, instead casually and ignorantly dismissing them all as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, dismissing them without any justification as being ‘sectarian’, just because, as with the post-January 25 democracy, the forces that they support are marginal and irrelevant. Indeed, it seems to have never dawned on the authors of this blog that the it’s precisely because the forces that march under the banner of R4BIA, formed out of supporters of Mohamed Morsi, are bearing the brunt of the brutal, murderous repression of the Al-Sisi regime precisely because they were and are the main proponents and practitioners of democracy in Egypt.

While the authors of the RLC blog condemn the repression of what they term as the Muslim Brotherhood by the Al-Sisi regime, in the final paragraph they declare, without a hint of irony, that ‘given the clashes and collaboration with the forces of reaction’, which is how they now term the Al-Sisi regime’s blood-soaked abolishment of democracy and its smashing of the main forces in support of democracy, the popular basis of which they uncritically supported and cheered on, that they have to ‘build and organise a popular alternative for the original objectives of the revolutions’. The fact that just over a year ago this group used the exact same language to describe the character and trajectory of the reactionary Tamarod movement should tell you that they are not even capable of discerning counterrevolution from revolution, let alone anything else. Those who support internationalism will be supporting not Islamism, but rather those forces that are struggling to establish democracy against those forces that have every interest in snuffing it out.