The Worst of Times, the Best of Times…
by Matt Meyer
There is a reason why so many internationalists have had hard times writing clearly about Egypt since the end of June 2013. There is a reason why in English the words “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” resonates so. The cultural chasms and the political complexity of Egypt’s ongoing revolutionary moments will not lend themselves easily to short statements or translated sound bites . . . but we remain distant from, declarative regarding, or dispassionate about these events at our own grave peril. Nothing less than our collective, twenty-first century understandings of such terms as “democracy,” “revolution,” and “violence/nonviolence” are being forged on the streets of Egypt today.
Events are unfolding too quickly for a report from an outsider to be of much use. But hopefully some definitional reflections, from the perspective of an independent solidarity activist/academic committed to revolutionary nonviolence and socialist/anarchist viewpoints, might provide some context for future conversation and work. Having spent time traveling throughout Egypt this past July only helped to ground these reflections, steeped in dozens of conversations with key folks struggling on the ground, from Alexandria and Cairo to Aswan and the southern borders of Sudan. As we analyze these terms in their current Egyptian context, may we all deepen our work for lasting, humanistic and radical social change.
Democracy: One might expect no less an authority as TIME Magazine to declare that the masses of Egyptians who took to the streets in late June are the “world’s best protestors” but the “world’s worst democrats.” This assessment, flashed from the July 22 cover, asks “can a democracy be won by protest?”…and one can almost see the TIME editors’ wagging their tongues. Wondering what the founding fathers of the US might have made of this question had it been posed in 1776, we must also always remember that the current chain of events in Egypt was sparked by what most observers understand to be the largest demonstration in history: upwards of 30 million people or more throughout the streets of every major city and town. Whether the true count is 33 million or the more modest 17 million some are claiming (or even half that amount!), the sheer vast numbers are unquestionable; a huge percentage of the population proclaimed on June 30 that Mohamed Morsi’s eighteen months as President had been a striking set-back to the unfinished unarmed revolution of 2011. These numbers in the streets go beyond the simple ballot box equations, defy the claim of serious outside agitation, and should give any organizer reason to pause. It matters little that not every single one of those on the streets shared a specific ideology, strategy, or plan of action — though clearly greater planning and organization would have made the following weeks more successful and less violent. What should matter most to respectful outside observers is the fact that the Egyptian people are mobilized for action, action at very least against dictatorship and fundamentalism. Mobilization on this scale is, to borrow a phrase, exactly what democracy looks like.
Coup: There continues to be a great deal of pressure to call the events which followed the mass action a military coup, in part because the term in international legal context requires the US government (as much as anything, for the US government has a habit of not paying attention to its own regulations whenever it doesn’t feel like it) to cut off aid. There is certainly no question that, on July 3, 2013, the Egyptian Armed Forces (SCAF) swept in to remove Morsi, who had been elected one year earlier. Furthermore, after the intense violence of August 13-15 2013, and despite some major problems with the wording, it was hard not to sign and support a petition calling for an end of US military aid to Egypt. Given the democratic context above, however, the events in Egypt are far from what most political scientists mean when they refer to a traditional coup d’etat. This is not the case of a distant armed force trampling on the democratic rights of peaceful protesters a la Tiananmen Square, as some have suggested, or an intervention striking against a people’s movement and a populist president, as one misguided commentator noted, attempting to link the current SCAF leadership with Chile’s brutal Pinochet. It is closer to the example of Grenada in 1979, when the unpopular regime of Eric Gairy was deposed by a massive protest which marched throughout the country (including the support of the armed forces there); most referred to this non-electoral change in government as a “peaceful revolution.” One close associate affiliated with the influential Tahrir-based cultural institution/publishing house Dar Al-Tanweer (Enlightenment) noted in early July that the word “coup” is rarely used to describe a situation where the deposed sitting president has spent the past year designing his own custom-made constitution, one granting himself full sovereignty and transition clauses allowing for his continuous institutionalization without future elections, one which has utilized personal militias poised against popular protest, one which consistently threatened judges and denied the power of the courts.
Though the phrase “people’s coup” has been making the rounds, the following comment circulated by Dar Al-Tanweer sums up much popular sentiment:
“Morsi failed to govern, but that is not why he’s out of power. He was a serious threat to the sovereignty of the very country that he presided over. The people realized it and the state institutions realized it and they simply kicked him and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) out of power. Call it a coup, call it a revolution, that doesn’t matter.”
It must be noted that this in no way excuses the massacres and violence of the past weeks. In addition, whenever there is a militarization of politics — as an armed force takes center stage in the political arena — there is an inevitable increase in state violence and repression of civilians. We must also be clear that there are distinctions between the armed forces and the police. The current shock-waves on the streets of Cairo, with forced curfews and an anxious calm, indicate what some grassroots activists are calling a “reign of terror,” with sadness and an overwhelming sense of death sweeping the often deserted avenues.
Terrorism: It is clearly problematic and incorrect to think of the Muslim Brotherhood as an essentially terrorist organization, designed primarily to rally the many pious believers in Islam towards an agenda of international exploitation through violent confrontation. It is equally foolish to view the Brotherhood as an anti-imperialist force, challenging Western hegemony. Though friends on both sides have made or implied both claims, they both fail to live up to close scrutiny. The Brotherhood was able to successfully recruit large numbers of the Egyptian population — not nearly as large as their opposition these past months, or as large as the numbers mobilized in 2011, but still substantial — mainly because of their commitment to social programs. Over the last decade, their grassroots service agencies have won allegiance because of their true involvement in the betterment of people’s lives, from education to health care to food distribution. They have also been consistently embedded in a neoliberal capitalist economic agenda, which is partially why the Morsi government was supported by the US and its allies. The Brotherhood has been a legitimate force in Egyptian social life and politics, one with a fundamentalist religious agenda with close links to its fundamentalist associates in other countries (including Palestine), though far from representing the most reactionary of the political Islamists or representing the majority of Egyptian Muslims. Indeed, its squandered opportunities at the center of government this past year led to its current widespread discrediting, as so many narrow, sectarian and self-centered policies led tens of thousands of Egyptians to feel worse about the Morsi regime than about the previous Mubarak military dictatorship. One of the most common remarks heard on the streets these past months, largely from those not directly active in any of the demonstrations or political organizations, centered around anger at Morsi and the Brotherhood for attempting to shove their brand of Islam onto the general Muslim population. “I don’t want or need my President trying to teach me about my faith in Islam!” stated one angry friend in the middle of fasting during Ramadan. “Government is supposed to help build the economy, create a peaceful and secure state while forging alliances with our neighbors and friends, and work for the betterment of the common people.”
Massacre, militarism, and violence: It is necessary, and should be easy, to condemn any acts of indiscriminate violence, especially when it stems from a militarized force more powerful than those being victimized. The deaths of hundreds and hundreds of Egyptians, most of whom were pro-Morsi demonstrators, are undoubtedly a tragedy, deserving international attention and condemnation. Before the sweeps of mid-August, however, it has not been completely clear that these deaths could be correctly termed massacres; Muslim Brotherhood militants were looking for fights with the Armed Forces and martyrdom was openly discussed, planned and prepared for. There can be little doubt that publicity around these deaths, and the sympathy generated by them, was the major tool used by the Brotherhood throughout July to attempt to win back the support which had drained to an all-time low by late June. They have mixed violence with their civil disobedience sit-in actions, a fact obscured by many media observers but not lost on the majority of the Egyptian people. The Egyptian Armed Forces for their part did what armed groups, especially standing armies, usually do: they used excess force and the only means they are trained for to deal with a political problem (what they saw as the Brotherhood, discredited and removed from power, still inciting confrontation and causing confusion on the streets).
Our associates in the Egyptian anti-militarist movement No to Compulsory Military Service understood from the beginning that the most dangerous long-term consequences of the events of July 2013 could be a strengthening of the faith in military means and the armed forces by the common Egyptian citizen who was overjoyed to see Morsi go. Indeed, the phrase “the army and the people are one” rang through the streets as this reporter left Cairo in late July, though some even beyond the pacifist circles were beginning to see the problem in that projection. The most complicated issue has been the level of rage which so many do feel about the direction of the “Egyptian Revolution” over the last year under the Morsi regime. One young anarcho-pacifist admitted that his main feeling in July (after seeing dozens of his friends jailed, killed, beaten, and hospitalized throughout 2012 and the first half of 2013) — when those at the center of the attacks were now on the receiving end — was of vindication and relief. Anyone with a commitment to justice must recognize that not all violence is created equal — and the violence of a sectarian state, like the violence of an army, is different than the rocks thrown at tanks or tear gas canisters thrown back at those wishing to quell nonviolent protest. But the cycle of state violence instituted in 2012 and intensified these past weeks, the adherence to military solutions to political problems which in Egypt dates back to the 1950s and the days of Nasser, must be replaced with a national project of alternatives to violent, military, and paramilitary solutions, a project of resistance and reconciliation.
Chaos: The headlines of USA Today, usually content on dealing with domestic cultural issues, screamed “Egypt Erupts in Chaos” on the morning of August 15, 2013. And while martial law, thousands of competing street protests, and a military government which is unable to accept or contain political dissent is far from stable, the question of “chaos” is an especially important one for internationalists. At a time when US government policy has been difficult to discern, it seems evident that imperial forces might well be content with a certain type of chaos. Attempting to play both sides (and being consistently rebuked by both the armed forces and pro-Morsi supporters), the US has lived happily with a strong military regime which will cater to its economic and regional geopolitical needs, and it has lived happily with a fundamentalist government which keeps the oil flowing and keeps relations open and positive. If these two options are impossible, and these two sides are fighting, an unstable Egypt — one which cannot exert independent influence on the region (as a mediating pro-Palestinian force, as a Pan-Arab force, or simply as a local power broker less dependent on empire than the US might enjoy) — may be an acceptable though complicated solution. There is evidence to suggest that the policies of the International Monetary Fund towards Morsi and the position of the US government vis-à-vis the Egyptian military all but made inevitable the so-called coup. That US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has spent her entire term of office inflaming all sides, now making US diplomacy in the region difficult at best, suggests that the chaos of the moment has been more than anticipated by Western leaders and hardly avoided despite numerous opportunities.
In this scenario of acceptable, managed chaos, the worst enemy of empire is a mobilized Egyptian population, one steeped in anti-dictatorship, anti-fundamentalist, and maybe even anti-imperialist, anti-militarist politics. There is certainly a basis for the development of such a force, but no one should be under any illusions that this can be fast-tracked or pushed into being by outside trainings or financial machinations; such an entity, if it is to be successful, will take time to emerge organically, and will be messy in the process as are all mass movements. It is the duty of the internationalist solidarity activist, however, to not get caught up in the Army vs. the Brotherhood debate, but to support the development of such an independent, grassroots, indigenous Egyptian force.
Revolutionary Nonviolence: At a recent panel on the subject at the 90th anniversary conference of the War Resisters League, this author noted that our time is one where we need to be mindful of complexities, nuances, alleged dichotomies that are really deeply linked, and the dialectics of the moment. Having just returned two days earlier from Cairo, I noted the fears and suspicions that “outside agitators” were pulling some deadly strings to maintain the violence in Egypt. While there can be little doubt that the US governmental and multinational financial institutions use every opportunity they can get to manipulate such situations to their advantage, there should also be little worry that popular mass movements can be easily directed from abroad. Nonviolent campaigns, if they are to be as massive as the ones we have witnessed in Egypt, require sentiment deeper in a population than money can buy or outsiders can mobilize. Even the Egyptian armed forces, currently at the helm of state power, couldn’t mobilize as many citizens on an endorsed and state-sanctioned demonstration on 26 July as took to the streets against Morsi at the end of June or early July in celebration of Morsi’s removal from power. Revolutionary upsurges, if they are to truly take on the centers of oppressive power with an eye towards replacing them with grassroots, decentralized, anti-militarist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-fundamentalist agendas, will simply not be supported by well-financed outside groups; no need for fear in that regard! Given past and current events in the most populous Arab country, it is unlikely that the coming period, even under the best of circumstances and indigenous leadership, will be purely nonviolent or unquestionably revolutionary. In the real world, there are nuances and bumps along the road. The role of the revolutionary nonviolent solidarity activist must be one of support and learning; Egyptians have been at this government-building balancing exercise, after all, a lot longer than any of the rest of us. As Pan-African pacifist Bill Sutherland used to teach, one should always push to make nonviolent action as revolutionary as possible, and total revolution as nonviolent as possible. The dream of an indigenous all-African (South to North) network of revolutionary nonviolence may be one step closer with plans for a major conference in 2014. Egyptians must surely play a major part in such an endeavor, as they have much to teach in these regards despite the current crisis.
The role of Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed El Baradei, a man well versed in nuances, is interesting in this regard. Pro-Morsi members of the Muslim Brotherhood were furious at El Baradei for stepping up too quickly after July 3, giving credibility to the interim government which included a number of progressive, democratic representatives. On August 14, when El Baradei resigned due to the continuing violence and the use of force by the army, he was criticized by the current leadership for stepping down too quickly. He has also been criticized by the Tamarod/Rebel movement for, well, not leading the rebellion. El Baradei is just one well-spotlighted person of principle who understands that the needs of his people will not be met by Muslim Brotherhood or the military, by violence or the chaos of the West.
One colleague who is a leading academic in Cairo, and who has been deeply involved in the activist movements as well, soberly suggested that the current fear of continued violence “threatens to accord the police state more power to detain, kill and govern, and for the Islamists (who are equally autocratic, repressive and violent) to gain more ground with more blood shed.” This friend, herself a dedicated Muslim, noted that “room for developing a socio-economic premise for reorganizing and pulling again the threads for revolutionary transformation may now take much longer and at a much higher cost. We would have been in better shape had we refused to grant the army and the MB/Islamists the chance to fulfill their desire for blood and power, their desire to quell the revolution and gain control over the machinery of the state.”
Self-Determination: There can be no doubt that this most basic principle of international solidarity be applied generously to Egyptian encounters today. That said, it can be understandably difficult to figure out how best to provide support in a period of deep division and confusion. If one looks closely, there are signs of positive development, however, which one can find — including the call last month in the midst of some of the worst violence by a section of the Muslim Brotherhood youth for movement towards an independent “Brotherhood Without Violence.” Of course, many Egyptian commentators continue to make bold statements about the nature of the current crisis, including independent film-maker Philip Rizk who noted that despite the difficulties, the revolution was surely far from dead. Rizk’s words about the dilemma are crystal clear: the mistaken “logic of ‘my enemy’s enemies are my friends’” he wrote, “meant that despite their role in suppressing the revolution, the military and even more alarmingly the police were celebrated on the public stage.” Though the Egyptian revolution which began on January 25, 2011 is in grave danger of cooptation and continued repression, the possibility for the future is good because “the power still lies with the people.”
Sharp, supportive understandings about the opportunities of this period are harder to come by from international commentators, but this author remains impressed by the perspective put forward by Shamus Cooke, who noted that “there is already broad support for a political program that serves the needs of the majority of Egyptians. Once these demands are properly articulated and effectively organized around, the situation in Egypt will have fundamentally changed, since the people in Egypt will have found their collective voice regarding what they collectively aspire toward, easily pushing aside the obstacles to their revolution once and for all.” Refugees United for Peaceful Solutions director Kathy Kamphoefner also writes poignantly about where international activists might find truthful, respectful, and representative information about grassroots social change in Egypt.
People’s power in Egypt has as much potential now as it did in 2011 or on June 30, in spite of the horrific violence. And that power, as Philip Rizk writes, does not have to see itself in an isolated vacuum: “Despite the different contexts across Brazil, Turkey, and Chile, as in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and the United States, people are taking to the street to stand in the way of the rule of local elites by the logic of the longevity of their power and the increase of a minorities’ wealth. Seeing all these revolutionary moments within one frame means that with or without democracy, with or without elections, popular rule is moving to the street and out of institutions and government offices.”
Our role is not only to support and learn from the movements in Egypt today; our role is surely to join them.
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.