Life and Death Lessons from Egypt

by Dennis Loo

The latest developments in Egypt provide life and death lessons on the nature of politics and movements that seek to end oppression. Egypt’s February 2011 popular uprising, along with Tunisia’s immediately preceding uprising, were triggers for the Occupy movement. Developments in the Arab world are both important in their own right and provide a window into the forces in play that operate everywhere. Egypt can be viewed, then, as a dress rehearsal for developments worldwide.

The Egyptian military, which took over control after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, was initially seen by many Egyptians as heroic for refusing to fire upon the people who flooded into Egyptian streets demanding that Mubarak go.

As I wrote in my book, however, as it went to press in the immediate wake of Mubarak’s resignation: " [A]s any initial euphoria towards the Egyptian military inevitably wears off, the recognition that this is the same military that served despot Mubarak and foreign power interests faithfully for thirty years will come to the fore. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 127)

This is what we have seen unfolding in Egypt since, with the struggle intensifying as Egyptians call for the military to cede power to civilian control (having learned in the course of their struggle that the military is not the force for change that so many had hoped) and as the military defies the people’s wishes, deploying a mysterious new kind of tear gas manufactured in the U.S. (as reported by Al-Jazeera yesterday) that has caused some demonstrators to die of asphyxiation.

The use of force is the solid core of state power. It is what makes a state a state. Force is not what allows states to stay in power over the long haul; legitimacy in the eyes of the people is what allows states to stay in power over the long term. But you do not have political power if you don’t have the ability to use force and the ability, in other words, to get people to do what you want them to do, even if they don’t want to do it.

That is why the initial stage of the Egyptian people’s revolution was Mubarak’s ouster, but because the means of violence remained and remains still in the hands of the military, they cannot advance their revolution unless and until they break the back of the military’s ability to use violence upon the people and the people become an armed people capable of advancing and defending their revolution.

The idea that political power is somehow separate and apart from the use of force is widespread in this country and worldwide. But it is a grievous error to see it that way. Many people have lost their lives needlessly in pursuit of change because they did not appreciate the role of coercion in political affairs and went into struggle blind to the reality of force. As the famous military strategist Clausewitz put it correctly, wars are the continuation of politics by other, violent, means. In other words, force does not exist as something separate from politics. Force is an expression of politics when political struggles move over into an open and explicit fight over which politics will prevail and set the terms for the whole society. If you want to change society, you cannot pretend that force is irrelevant. You have to address yourself to it fully and resolve the issue fully.

The negotiations that just occurred in Egypt between the military and a few of the opposition forces, namely in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, with the bulk of the opposition boycotting the meeting, have created a split within the ranks of the Brotherhood, with some of the youth arm of the Brotherhood refusing order from their leaders to stay out of the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership agreed to a proposal from the military that the people in the streets consider a sell-out.

As The New York Times reported recently: “Egypt careened through another day of crisis with no end in sight as hundreds of thousands of people occupying Tahrir Square jeered at a deal struck on Tuesday by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that would speed up the transition to civilian rule on a timetable favoring the Islamist movement.

“The agreement, which centered on a presidential election by late June, appeared unlikely to extinguish the resurgent protest movement — the largest since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago. The crowd roared its disapproval when the deal was announced at 8 p.m., fighting spiked on the avenue leading to the Interior Ministry, and the number of protesters continued to swell.

“Unlikely to satisfy the public demands for the military to leave power, the deal may have driven a new wedge into the opposition, reopening a divide between the seething public and the political elite, between liberals and Islamists and, as events unfolded, among the Islamists themselves.

“’We refuse it, and the square has refused it already,’ said Islam Lotfy, a former leader of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled from the organization with a group of others for starting a centrist political party. ‘They did not offer anything new. They are just bargaining with the people.’”

From my book as I discuss the cleavages that arise among the different strata and that is expressed in different philosophies, value systems, and political programs: "Like a group of people riding a bus to a series of destinations, some people want to go further than others. Some people, once they get “theirs,” once their social and economic position is secured and they are comfortable, want to get off the bus. They also think that their stop is suitable for everyone else and that the bus should end its journey there, even if this destination does not provide justice or fairness for the vast majority of people. Reactionaries such as Rush Limbaugh, who appeal to the people’s worst sentiments and desires to scapegoat, scoff at the desires of minorities/nationalities and women to undo centuries of oppression. “Get over it!” Rush says in effect. “Quit your bellyaching! The way things are is fine and dandy. I’ve got mine, why are you not content with what you’ve got? What’s wrong with you?”

"While truth exists independently of any individuals’ or groups’ perceptions of truth and advocacy of what they think is true, the connection between the politics and ideology of different groups—their version of where the bus should end its journey—and their views and stands are crucial to recognize, for they play central roles in the configuration of the political arena. In any major political battle, different individuals express differing group interests (whether or not they do so consciously) and those different groups have different attitudes about how to proceed and where we should go.”  (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 351-352).

 The fate of the Egyptian people rests upon the question of whether or not they successfully negotiate the contradictions and challenges that any people trying to be free of tyranny confront. The really encouraging thing about the news from Egypt is that the people have not stopped their pursuit after Mubarak’s departure and are willing to continue the struggle that is growing increasingly more violent in the streets. The stakes are extremely high. 

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