Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Grand Entente

In the old days, when the Israeli military bombed and shelled Palestinians and sought to destroy their society, Hosni Mubarak used a well-worn formula, fully abetting Israeli actions while uttering pro-Palestine platitudes. Occasionally, when huge protests rocked the streets, he green-lighted theatrical gestures such as his wife heading a relief convoy to Gaza in 2002, and his son fronting a delegation to Beirut when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006.

Today, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not only steered clear of a single expression of token solidarity with Palestinians. He and his media creatures have actually ventriloquized Israeli talking points: Hamas is responsible for the staggering civilian death toll; Hamas is a terrorist organization; Hamas ought to be tried for war crimes. One of Sisi’s shills even instigated a diplomatic crisis with Morocco when she attacked King Mohammed VI for allowing Islamists to form the government, prompting an official apology by the Egyptian ambassador to Morocco.

What accounts for this baffling state of affairs? Mubarak’s and Sisi’s are both dictatorial regimes, and Sisi is seen as the logical heir to Mubarak (albeit rudely interrupted by the evanescent Egyptian revolution). But why is Sisi going out of his way to advertise his identity of interest with Israel? Surely it’s better for him to be circumspect and keep up appearances?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

State Prestige Redux

(Anadolu Agency)
When historians review this first year of Sisi’s rule, they will note that the military regime’s core priority was to crush popular mobilization. Under the doctrine of restoring “state prestige,” the entire state machinery went into avenger mode, brutalizing both supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his diehard opponents. For despite their myopic hatred for each other, the Muslim Brothers and their critics espouse the same dangerous belief, the conviction that they should be able to control the state, not the other way round. This revolutionary idea and its shortlived practice is what Sisi is out to destroy.

Some like to pretend that the scale of state violence since July 3 2013 is a sign of a government that’s out of control or somehow getting off track. In a stunning abuse of language even by the forgiving standards of diplomatspeak, the American State Department continues to proclaim that Egypt is on “a path to democracy” but unfortunately experiencing a “chilling detour.” In reality, the mass killings, mass jailings, mass death sentences, mass hysteria-mongering, and mass leader worship perpetrated by Egypt’s government are not some unfortunate aberration. They are what putschist generals do after they overthrow elected governments.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sisi's Challenge

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has certified his seizure of power with an electoral pantomime, and looks set to preside over a reconstructed Mubarakist system. The revolution appears as a blip in the stubborn tradition of one military dictator transferring power to another. But try as he might, the new leader of Egypt can’t rule the way Mubarak did. Sisi faces an entirely different set-up than the relatively tame country Mubarak inherited, and will have to devise a ruling formula from scratch to deal with a country in a protracted political transformation.

It’s strange to me how so many commentators are unanimously declaring the economy to be the make-or-break test of the new autocrat’s rule, as if the survival of any of Egypt’s military rulers depended on economic performance. Inequality, immiseration, and corruption accelerated under Sadat and flourished under Mubarak, but neither was brought down by those conditions. Their fates hinged on the tools of political control they designed to channel and contain economic discontent and political ambition.

Sisi’s survival depends on how he’ll pacify and roll back the mass politicization that erupted post-revolution, a feat that no other modern Egyptian ruler has had to attempt. From January 25 2011 to June 30 2013, in a spectacle unseen in the modern history of this country, crowds filling streets determined the fate of powerholders. On July 3, Sisi terminated that dangerous pattern, co-opting popular mobilization into state-sanctioned folk festivals and using overwhelming state violence against oppositional protests and sit-ins.

But to build an enduring authoritarian order, Sisi will have to go beyond his crude strategy of crushing real mass mobilization while staging medieval pageants of mass acclamation. The limits of this approach couldn’t be clearer in the election debacle. Apparently, Sisi and his machinery didn’t anticipate that claiming a popular mandate is far easier with protests than through elections. Hence the hilarious government panic and desperate eleventh-hour measures to compel people to take part in a choreographed election, an exercise more idiotic than herding cats.

Managing Opposition

Simply put, Sisi has to construct a sophisticated new system for handling opposition. The state terror he’s unleashed on opponents since July 3rd may work in the short term, but begins to signal state weakness in the face of unabated acts of resistance. Similarly, the spectacles of popular acclamation à la Syria’s Asads quickly become liabilities, showcasing a ruler’s mendacity and megalomania rather than his invincibility.

Mubarak’s rule lasted because it managed different kinds of opposition. There was a parliamentary space inherited from Sadat, for channeling the political energies of the reformist Muslim Brothers and a dozen maverick non-Islamist politicians. When a protest culture began to emerge in the 2000s, Mubarak’s police didn’t crush it but instead worked to ensure that workers’ protests never merged with pro-democracy demonstrations. Mubarak even kept Sadat’s risible state-created opposition, the neo-Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist outfits that were useful when he needed a stooge to stand against him in sham elections.

This system chugged along for 30 years and would have lasted longer, had an internal and external shock not overturned everything. Mubarak’s son and his friends over-managed the 2010 parliamentary elections and hogged all the seats, radicalizing the tamed parliamentary opposition. A month later, on January 14, 2011, the Arab authoritarian order was changed forever when one of its architects ran away in the face of massive street opposition, electrifying crowds all over the Arab world. The stage was set for the separate worlds of opposition under Mubarak to converge and terminate his storied longevity.

Revolutionary Creation, Military Destruction

The uprising inaugurated an era of mass politicization, breaking down the barriers between people and politics Mubarak had maintained so well. It seems like a different country now, but recall the heady year of 2011, when every part of Egypt was alive with boundary-breaking political action: protests against mini-Mubaraks in the state bureaucracy; protests against governors; evolution of neighborhood popular committees; protests against church burnings; the first free internal university elections; freetrade unions; the first sustained Tahrir sit-in after Mubarak’s ouster; and crowds’ storming of two of the most fortified symbols of power in Cairo: the State Security headquarters and the Israeli embassy.

At the same time as Egyptians were actively remaking politics in their neighborhoods, streets and workplaces, a new national political tradition was born: the Friday mass protest or melyoneyya, radiating out from Tahrir in Cairo to the central squares in provincial capitals. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that this was the first time since 1919 that crowds steered national policies, via a weekly outdoor mass parliament more potent than any legislative body.

When that body was seated in January 2012, it was peremptorily dissolved less than six months later, part of the military’s long game of torpedoing every popular achievement both at the ballot box and in the streets. In short order, the first elected president was overthrown; the first popularly-authored constitution suspended; Tahrir Square was closed off with barbed wire and army tanks; protest encampments at Rabaa and Nahda burned and thousands of protestors killed; an anti-protest law promulgated; and thousands of students, activists and non-political citizens arrested, jailed or sentenced to death.

Writing of the 1851 coup d’état that arrested the 1848 revolution in France, Marx’s words illuminate equally well the Egyptian drama of revolutionary creation and military destruction: “Instead of society conquering a new content for itself, it only seems that the state has returned to its most ancient form, the unashamedly simple rule of the military sabre and the clerical cowl.”

Sisi has yet to go beyond the primitive Bonapartist impulses of using the state’s brute force and crude propaganda. But to recoup the investment in him by his Gulf, US, and Israeli friends and backers, he will have to build a viable authoritarian political order that can calibrate and not just indiscriminately crush opposition.

Sisi's Gamble

If Mubarak inherited a country with tame levels of conflict, Sisi seized power in a scarcely recognizable Egypt, a place that in three remarkable years has undergone three political upheavals: a popular uprising; an intensely competitive, hard fought presidential election; and a military coup cheered by half the population and resisted by the other half.

Residues of these conflicts have made deep grooves: the nightly anti-coup processions and Friday demonstrations in Greater Cairo and several other cities; student protests of stunning bravery and heroism; an armed insurgency in Sinai; workers’ protests that are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude; and a thriving satirical subculture dedicated solely to ridiculing Sisi’s every gesture and utterance.

Sisi’s gamble requires that he figure out a workable formula for ruling Egypt without the participation of Egyptians, at a historical juncture when Egyptians have become much harder to rule.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Military Constitution

Now that the Egyptian military has ousted the first elected president, installed a government of civilian executors, massacred the former president’s supporters and sympathizers, and declared his organization a terrorist group, it is set to produce a document it calls a constitution that codifies military superiority over state and society.

Not content to delegate the task of selling the document to the 50 people it appointed to write it, the military is doing its own sales pitch. It has issued this video laying out how all three branches of the armed forces, as well as special forces, border guards and military police, will deploy 160,000 men to assist the Interior Ministry in “securing” the referendum on the document.

The video is an endless parade of military prowess: rolling tanks and armored personnel carriers; formations of ramrod-straight troops bearing huge rifles; and of course the military’s treasured helicopters, this time not to draw hearts in the sky but “to monitor any obstructions to the electoral operation.” At the end of the video the voice-over narrator avers, “This comes at a time when the armed forces are undertaking vigilance and preparedness procedures to execute their principal duties on all the strategic fronts of the state.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that Egypt is on the cusp of war, not an impending plebiscite. But war is what militaries do, and when countries are blighted by politicized militaries that control their politics, the guns are turned inward. This isn’t a figure of speech. Since July 3rd, the military and its junior partner the police have repeatedly killed opponents of the coup, not content with “just” arrests and jail terms.

The once unfathomable is now routine, with at least one killing at every protest, and a stunning 17 people killed just last Friday. The general public’s manufactured indifference and silence is the biggest kick in the gut, a testament to the military’s lethal power to mold reality and cow citizens.

In frighteningly methodical fashion, every hard-won gain of the January 25th revolution is reversed and trampled upon. The collective emancipation of the revolutionary crowds is turned into fear and conformist state worship. The once-revolutionary act of burning police cars, a time-honored Egyptian resistance tactic, is now rubbished because only the Muslim Brothers are daring it. The greatest and most brittle achievement of the revolution, the possibility and practice of ruling ourselves, is defeated by the armed enforcers of elite rule.

In these times of daily state violence, a law criminalizing protest, a government decree declaring the largest political group in Egypt a “terrorist organization,” and a state-sponsored silencing and fear-mongering campaign, Egyptians are being badgered to go out and endorse a document that spells out the terms of their subjugation. Such is the military’s constitution.