I've recently read an article by Samir Amin, the director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal mostly about the current anti-dictatorship movement in Egypt called 2011: An Arab Springtime?
Samir Amin does a service in presenting Egypt's current anti-dictatorship movement as part of a particularly long tradition in Egypt of working to free itself from colonial subjugation. It is very thought-provoking to look at Tahrir Square in 2011 as the continuation of a process that began even before 1820 of efforts to render Egypt independent of foreign control.
Amin strikes me though as unjustifiably hostile against Islamism. I don't see the degree of cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak that Amin sees, much less his cooperation between Islamists and the West.
Lastly, there are groups in Egypt that Amin supports as a socialist. Workers groups and non-bourgeois religious groups. These are the groups that I understand Amin to want to see gain power. I don't have any particular Egyptian group that I'm rooting for, as long as Egyptians are able to debate policy among themselves and through some mechanism the views and values of the median Egyptian are reflected in policy.
I would agree with Amin that democracy is not everything and that oppression and imbalanced relationships and injustice can and will continue after Egyptians have put into place a process to choose their own leaders. But that is a better problem to have than the problem of being ruled by a foreign-controlled colonial government as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE and others are. I also have a substantial degree of faith that if Egyptians are able to hold their leadership accountable, they will make the best progress I can hope for towards addressing other problems.
In fact, if Egypt has a representative government and I believe it is not solving problems adequately, my opinion by that point is irrelevant. All I want is for Egypt to be ruled by the winners of peaceful and graceful Egyptian political processes. If Egypt's voters make mistakes by my standards or especially by theirs, Egypt's voters have the right to make mistakes and to learn from them as they will.
So that was my impression of the article from memory. I'm going to look over it for quotations that struck me as memorable.
Egypt was the first country in the periphery of globalized capitalism that tried to “emerge.” Even at the start of the 19th century, well before Japan and China, the Viceroy Mohammed Ali had conceived and undertaken a program of renovation for Egypt and its near neighbors in the Arab Mashreq [Mashreq means “East,” i.e., eastern North Africa and the Levant, ed.]. That vigorous experiment took up two-thirds of the 19th century and only belatedly ran out of breath in the 1870′s, during the second half of the reign of the Khedive Ismail. The analysis of its failure cannot ignore the violence of the foreign aggression by Great Britain, the foremost power of industrial capitalism during that period. Twice, in [the naval campaign of] 1840 and then by taking control of the Khedive’s finances during the 1870′s, and then finally by military occupation in 1882, England fiercely pursued its objective: to make sure that a modern Egypt would fail to emerge. Certainly the Egyptian project was subject to the limitations of its time since it manifestly envisaged emergence within and through capitalism, unlike Egypt’s second attempt at emergence—which we will discuss further on. That project’s own social contradictions, like its underlying political, cultural, and ideological presuppositions, undoubtedly had their share of responsibility for its failure. The fact remains that without imperialist aggression those contradictions would probably have been overcome, as they were in Japan.I consider this very important history to keep in mind when looking at today's anti-dictatorship protest movement. The movement did not start in 2011 but is the continuation of a now centuries-old drive to deal with similar external forces that have been working to control Egypt to advance external agendas.
A first coup d’état in 1952 by the “Free Officers,” and above all a second coup in 1954 by which Nasser took control, was taken by some to “crown” the continual flow of struggles and by others to put it to an end. Rejecting the view of the Egyptian awakening advanced above, Nasserism put forth an ideological discourse that wiped out the whole history of the years from 1919 to 1952 in order to push the start of the “Egyptian Revolution” to July 1952. At that time many among the communists had denounced this discourse and analyzed the coups d’état of 1952 and 1954 as aimed at putting an end to the radicalization of the democratic movement. They were not wrong, since Nasserism only took the shape of an anti-imperialist project after the Bandung Conference of April 1955. Nasserism then contributed all it had to give: a resolutely anti-imperialist international posture (in association with the pan-Arab and pan-African movements) and some progressive (but not “socialist”) social reforms. The whole thing done from above, not only “without democracy” (the popular masses being denied any right to organize by and for themselves) but even by “abolishing” any form of political life. This was an invitation to political Islam to fill the vacuum thus created. In only ten short years (1955-1965) the Nasserist project used up its progressive potential. Its exhaustion offered imperialism, henceforward led by the United States, the chance to break the movement by mobilizing to that end its regional military instrument: Israel. The 1967 defeat marked the end of the tide that had flowed for a half-century. Its reflux was initiated by Nasser himself who chose the path of concessions to the Right (the infitah or “opening,” an opening to capitalist globalization of course) rather than the radicalization called for by, among others, the student movement (which held the stage briefly in 1970, shortly before and then after the death of Nasser). His successor, Sadat, intensified and extended the rightward turn and integrated the Muslim Brotherhood into his new autocratic system. Mubarak continued along the same path.For all of my admiration of Nasser, he was not an advocate for democracy which I have to see as a weakness or valid criticism of him. Noam Chomsky also says that Israel did the US a service by confronting Egyptian nationalism. Other than Israel, I don't think Egyptian nationalism by 1960 posed a particular threat to the West. If not for Israel, the United States would have had a much bigger advantage in the Middle East in its Cold War contest against the militantly atheist USSR. I don't think of Israel as the West's regional military instrument but rather as a burden the West carries for various reasons that I discuss elsewhere.
But about the idea that Sadat integrated the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian society and Mubarak continued that, I'm very skeptical. Many Islamists were tortured after the assassination of Sadat and the Egyptian state could fairly by that point have been said to be at war with political Islam.
The collusion between the imperialist powers and political Islam is, of course, neither new nor particular to Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, from its foundation in 1927 up to the present, has always been a useful ally for imperialism and for the local reactionary bloc. It has always been a fierce enemy of the Egyptian democratic movements. And the multibillionaires currently leading the Brotherhood are not destined to go over to the democratic cause! Political Islam throughout the Muslim world is quite assuredly a strategic ally of the United States and its NATO minority partners. Washington armed and financed the Taliban, who they called “Freedom Fighters,” in their war against the national/popular regime (termed “communist”) in Afghanistan before, during, and after the Soviet intervention. When the Taliban shut the girls’ schools created by the “communists” there were “democrats” and even “feminists” at hand to claim that it was necessary to “respect traditions!”If the Muslim Brotherhood does take steps to deny voting rights to Egyptians or demonstrates a refusal to accept the results of elections, then those steps or that demonstration will be a valid criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. So far, I have not seen the Muslim Brotherhood act against democracy and am optimistic that I will not. A government that the Muslim Brotherhood, at the very least, can work with is nearly certain to be the result of any reasonably democratic Egyptian political process. I just cannot go along with Amin's portrayal of the group, in today's context, as an opponent of democracy or ally of the imperialists.
Mao was not wrong when he affirmed that really existing (which is to say, naturally imperialist) capitalism had nothing to offer to the peoples of the three continents (the periphery made up of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—a “minority” counting 85% of world population!) and that the South was a “storm zone,” a zone of repeated revolts potentially (but only potentially) pregnant with revolutionary advances toward socialist transcendence of capitalism.If you look at South America, or the rest of Africa or the rest of Asia, you will not see that the US is a particularly benevolent influence in any of them. But you will not see the intensity of intervention, the desperate hostility against democracy that you see from the US in the Middle East anywhere else either. Once a post-Zionist Middle East becomes a region not much different from the rest of the world, there still will be a lot of work to do, but the Middle East is a special case where the West has an additional agenda that Amin does not seem to me to be fully taking into account.
The “Arab spring” is enlisted in that reality. The case is one of social revolts potentially pregnant with concrete alternatives that in the long run can register within a socialist perspective. Which is why the capitalist system, monopoly capital dominant at the world level, cannot tolerate the development of these movements. It will mobilize all possible means of destabilization, from economic and financial pressures up to military threats. It will support, according to circumstances, either fascist and fascistic false alternatives or the imposition of military dictatorships. Not a word from Obama’s mouth is to be believed. Obama is Bush with a different style of speech. Duplicity is built into the speech of all the leaders of the imperialist triad (United States, Western Europe, Japan).
Amin is mostly right, but Egypt is not like, say South Korea. Israel would not be viable of Egypt achieved South Korea's levels of industrialization and technology so the Egyptian people are in a more profound conflict with the US as Israel's patron than even the people of South Korea - which is not to deny or belittle the degree that the people of South Korea have been in conflict with the US.
All in all, I found it a good and interesting article. I'm most appreciative that it connects the current movement to a longer struggle. I am not as anti-Islamist as Amin is though.