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Democratic revolution and Egypt: a response to Brecht de Smet

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I recently wrote an article entitled Democratic revolution and the Arab revolutions: addressing the myth of permanent revolution in Egypt, which elicited this response from Brecht De Smet, a notable commentator on the Egyptian revolution. I thought that the response was worth a reply and also served as a good basis for an addendum to the article.

Here is the original comment:

"Well, we could have an honest discussion on the validity of permanent revolution in the epoch of developed capitalism (I would argue then that the meaning of PR becomes much closer to Luxemburg's treatment of the relation between the 'political' and the 'economic' in The Mass Strike), but the piece has some basic facts wrong concerning the political attitude of the RS [Revolutionary Socialists], for example. I remember criticizing them during the presidential elections (Morsi-Shafiq) because they actually were taking their support for Morsi against Shafiq too far. Moreover, most of their cadres criticized the focus of other activists on Tahrir and aimed to spread the revolution to the provincial cities and towns, neighborhoods and workplaces.

The author doesn't realize that there can be different forms of counter-revolution and that Egypt, Tunisia and Syria represent these shades of violence and of the retaking of the initiative by the ruling classes.

The author doesn't realize that the trajectory of an originally genuine mass movement such as Tamarod was not predetermined in advance and that socialists would have been *stupid* not to participate, intervene, and orient it toward a revolutionary course (of course, in the process they lost out to the more powerful influences of the military, but what can you *do*? Remain in the background and applaud the sham 'democratization' under Morsi?).

The author doesn't realize that there is a difference between a critique of a 'confused' or 'incomplete' revolution (indeed from the *normative* point of view that to emancipate the region one must make a socialist revolution and not merely a democratic one) and an analysis of the forces of counter-revolution (i.e., the organized force of the ruling classes, which may contain popular elements).
"

The author claims that the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) took their support for Morsi too far, which I can only assume he means that they, like many of the "secular" revolutionaries at the time, decided to support Morsi, who represented a large component of those who had participated in and supported the January 25 revolution. Morsi’s opponent, one might remember, was the overtly and unashamedly counter-revolutionary Ahmed Shafik, whose campaign rallies were openly attended by members of the security forces and who promised to mete out "massive violence" in the event of his victory. In such circumstances, it hardly takes the abandonment of one’s principles to vote for Morsi. Other than that, I have no idea how the RS took its support for Morsi "too far"? De Smet never does go into detail about it.

De Smet says something that tellingly corresponds to the paradigm of sectarian delusion that is suffered by many Western leftists that I laid out in my initial article. He says "most of their [the RS’] cadres criticised the focus of their activists on Tahrir and aimed to spread the revolution to the provincial cities and town and neighborhoods and workplaces". He seems to be labouring under the delusion that the January 25 revolution was the RS’s to spread – not only is the RS an incredibly small sect, one which is completely unrepresentative of the majority of people and forces who took part in and supported the revolution, but the January 25 revolution had already spread all across the country.

So why did the RS support Morsi, only to turn against him so viciously a few months later? As with other political entities in Egypt, it was more than likely a mixture of political opportunism, theoretical absurdities and the political peer pressure – the RS’s comrades in the liberal April 6 Movement and that infamous network of liberal-left activists were all enthusiastic supporters of Tamarod, so they would have been veritable social outcasts if they had taken a principled anti-Morsi, but pro-democracy stance in this context. Moreover, as I said in my article, the realities of democracy made these forces absolutely irrelevant – the only thing that kept up their media profiles, including appearing on the major domestic private and rabidly anti-Ikhwan cable TV channels and western and regional media outlets, was to conform to the dominant arguments against the Morsi government and the Ikhwan. It might be useful for some if the RS was to explain their position, but they don’t really talk much about it. One can only imagine why.

As I said in the article, which I don’t think De Smet has actually read, the RS have absolutely no social base. Even giving anything other than sectarian relevance to its "debate" about whether or not to boycott the 2012 presidential election threatens to give them a significance that they quite simply just don’t have when it comes to national politics in Egypt. To put it another way, it’s not as if Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party were sitting tensely waiting to hear if Gigi Ibrahim was going to vote for them. The reason the author doesn’t know or care about any of this is, I fear, because his consciousness as far as the January 25 revolution is concerned only extends to the narrative espoused by forces such as the RS. This is problematic as it tends to mean one is left utterly confused about the balance of forces involved in the uprising.

This is precisely the point I was making about why it became politically convenient for forces such as the RS and their comrades to act as if the post-January 25 democracy was of no significance whatsoever. It was a stunning piece of political projection, namely because they themselves were of no significance whatsoever.

De Smet actually doesn’t respond any of the content of my article, instead declaring a series of things that I apparently "don’t realise", which, in this context, I can only surmise means that I fail to mindlessly repeat parts of the delusional narrative of self-justification that underlines much of the left’s take on these events.

So, the first thing I apparently "don’t realise" is that "there are different forms of counter-revolution and that Egypt, Tunisia and Syria represent these shades of violence and of the retaking of the initiative by the ruling classes". This is another one of these statements that is massively popular among the left when it comes to the so-called "Arab spring", but it is a statement rooted in the fantasy politics associated with certain takes on "permanent revolution" and of the narratives formed by its sectarian adherents.

As I stated in the article, the revolution in Tunisia was a national democratic revolution; hence why democracy is seen as being both the main product and the main instrument of all of the forces that overthrew the Ben Ali regime. The revolution wasn’t a socialist revolution; thus, the dynamic of either Ennahda or Nidaa Tounis being "counter-revolutionary" doesn’t make any sense. For either to be counter-revolutionary in this context, they would have to be anti-democratic. Yes, both might be in favour of economic liberalism and both, it could be argued, have the potential to become counter-revolutionary, but the latter is deeply unlikely as it would involve the setting up of another tyranny (and all this entails), which is somewhat contrary to the balance of forces within Tunisia, with the will of the masses corresponding to the broad political and ruling classes, as reflected in the main product of the Tunisian revolution, which is the massively popular revolutionary constitution, enshrining all the staples of what might be called 'bourgeois democracy' – multi-party democratic system, human rights enshrined in law, establishment of a free press etc. The truth is that if an anti-neoliberal left force was capable of winning the Tunisian elections, there is nothing to stop it doing so. Indeed, the fourth biggest party in the Tunisian parliament is the Popular Front, a broadly leftist coalition led by Hamma Hammami.

This really does get to the heart of the matter – "permanent revolution" forces its proponents into grasping around wildly for reasons to dismiss all of the forces to its right as "counter-revolutionary" regardless of the context. In Egypt, this was opportunistically and parasitically selective - it led to a group like the RS disseminating the idea that the June 30 protest movement in Egypt was actually all about Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party’s adherence to ‘neoliberalism’, but, in reality, the main political forces (political forces much larger and with much more influence than the tiny RS) that supported these protests and the Tamarod campaign to unseat Morsi were actually massively supportive of ‘neoliberalism’. It led to the RS telling us all how the June 30 movement was formed because of the Freedom and Justice Party’s anti-democratic practices, yet the major political forces involved in June 30 were mostly far from democratic, whether it was opportunistic pro-military Neo-Nasserists, opportunistic elitist liberals and the remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

This brings me on to the second thing that I purportedly "don’t realise", which is:

“… that the trajectory of an originally genuine mass movement such as Tamarod was not predetermined in advance and that socialists would have been *stupid* not to participate, intervene, and orient it toward a revolutionary course (of course, in the process they lost out to the more powerful influences of the military, but what can you *do*? Remain in the background and applaud the sham 'democratization' under Morsi?).”

Firstly, the trajectory of Tamarod was absolutely "predetermined" – it’s entire raison d’être was to unseat Morsi by gathering more signatures than the amount of votes Morsi received in the fair and free democratic election. The way they did this was by claiming to collect 22 million signatures, but, until this very moment, none of this has ever been verified, namely because it was an inherently anti-democratic movement that became the perfect vehicle for the anti-democratic counter-revolution. The fact that a tiny group like the RS were willing to collapse into these larger forces along the dubious reasoning of ‘permanent revolution’ tells us absolutely nothing about the nature of the movement formed around Tamarod. What does tell us about the nature of the movement is that despite the fact it did contain genuine grassroots activists and that it was a genuinely mass movement, its own founders admit that it was aided by the security forces (the so-called ‘deep state’) from its very inception and that it gained the support of every counter-revolutionary, pro-neoliberal political force in the country. These are the forces that came out in Tahrir, who were holding up signs calling for the slaughter of "Ikhwani sheep", and who were chanting "the people and the police are one hand" and then celebrating as members of the hated CSF joined the protests. Sure, some of the forces that attached themselves to it did so for what you might call ‘progressive’ reasons, they might have also been 'grassroots' etc., but its success as a counter-revolutionary movement is that it marshalled and guided these forces away from democratic participation and towards the overthrow of democracy.

Instead of the June 30 forces waiting for the parliamentary elections scheduled just a few months later, which, if Morsi’s unpopularity was truly at the levels his enemies made it out to be, would have ensured a major defeat for the Freedom and Justice Party and thus enabled the parliament to impeach Morsi (although, as we’re now seeing as a consequence and part of the June 30 counter-revolution, we know exactly the nature of the crimes that Morsi’s main enemies were accusing him of – espionage on behalf of Iran, a plot with Hezbollah and Hamas to destabilise Egypt etc. - which is yet another indication of the nature of the June 30 movement and its ideological trajectory), or they could have forced the collapse of the Qandil cabinet, or, they could have waited for the next round of presidential elections. But no, they, at first, went for the option of unconstitutionally demanding snap presidential elections in which Morsi wasn’t allowed to run, which, and this is the major point, would have necessarily entailed the intervention of the military; hence why they were supporting and backing all of this, along with their corresponding political supporters. This wasn’t a co-option of an otherwise progressive movement, one that was ideologically ‘up in the air’, which could be won to Trotksyism by a couple of hundred members of the RS in Tahrir, by the military. This was a movement that contained counter-revolutionary and pro-military forces that the RS had let itself be swept up in.

The major consciousness of the June 30 movement was one shaped by political opportunism and hysterical, ultra-nationalist and violent anti-Ikhwanism, which had been wrought by one year of relentless anti-Morsi/anti-Ikhwan propaganda from the state and private media (much of which is owned by pro-Mubarak/pro-military tycoons), which blamed him for everything from Egypt’s deep structural and socio-political problems (train crashes, water shortages, tourism drying up etc.), to these absurd notions of ‘akhwana’ or ‘Brotherhoodisation’, as if Morsi was some kind of Ayatollah Khomeini figure on the verge of declaring a theocracy. The idea that a force like the Revolutionary Socialists, whose membership is in the hundreds at most, could possibly "participate, intervene and reorient" this movement is as absurd as the German Stalinists who used the slogan "after Hitler, us". The full absurdity of the argument can be seen if we look at Tamarod’s enthusiastic endorsement of and participation in military rule, as well as its fascistic cheerleading for the destruction of democracy and every single instance of mass murder perpetrated by the Al-Sisi regime. Indeed, these people who the RS thought were the vanguard of the social revolution and who they held joint conferences with, were even advocating ‘citizen armies’ to help the police hunt down and kill pro-Morsi protesters.

Moreover, if De Smet really wants us to believe that the June 30 movement was somehow on the cusp of being ‘progressive’ and anti-military, or was susceptible to the sloganeering of tiny Trotskyist forces that most of its participants had never heard of, I’d ask him to explain the June 30 movement’s mobilisations after July 3. Following the military coup, which, let’s not forget, this movement hysterically celebrated, including that infamous moment when the Egyptian Armed Forces dropped little pre-prepared Egyptian flags on the ‘revolutionaries’ from helicopters above Tahrir, in between the celebratory fly-overs put on by the air force (I guess the RS’s missionary work wasn’t going very well at this point), the June 30 movement mobilised in large numbers on two more occasions, both of which followed the new figurehead of June 30, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s, call for the movement to fill the streets and squares to support his government’s ‘war on terror’, which actually amounted to, most famously, the massacres of unarmed pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in massive numbers in the squares of Rabaa and Nadha. The June 30 movement, led by Tamarod and Hamdeen Sabbahi's 'Popular Current', once again filled up Tahrir to support the military. This was not any kind of progressive movement and those who say otherwise are, once again, relating to Egypt only as a bizarre political fantasy upon which all kinds of dogma and ideological fixations can be imposed.

It’s within this context that De Smet must declare that "democratisation" was a "sham". He’s certainly not making an empirically coherent or justifiable point, but rather retroactively defending the woeful positions of the RS. The truth is that the RS, bereft of a social base and for all the circumstances and theoretical absurdities I talk about in the article (the ones De Smet doesn’t mention or refer to), merely collapsed into a mass movement that was objectively anti-democratic and counter-revolutionary. The dynamic in Egypt was one of a coalition of counter-revolutionary forces, including the Armed Forces and ‘deep state’ moving against and exterminating democratic forces – forces that had both been elected by millions of Egyptians via the post-January 25 democratic system and that could be removed democratically. The RS sided with former forces against the latter and their apologists continue to mindlessly perpetuate these errors. If ‘democratisation’ was such a ‘sham’, De Smet must account for the fact that since July 3 almost every product and victory of the democratic revolution has been violently reversed and halted, including the right to free assembly, a fair and free elections, academic freedom, freedom of expression (just think of all the anti-Morsi TV shows, newspapers, radio programmes etc.) and so on. It’s completely true that Morsi wasn’t perfect when these things were concerned, but it was only after and because of his demise that authoritarianism and tyranny could be restored. The notion that this year of democracy was a "sham" is a point that only those who didn’t realise or care about its preciousness and fragility; indeed, it’s why those forces who marched against democracy, such as the RS, can call those who still march against the coup, risking life and limb, "counter-revolutionaries", while the mass movement of June 30 that was supposedly potentially progressive has just melted away into indifference or active support for the regime.

The third thing that I supposedly "don’t realise" is that:

"... there is a difference between a critique of a 'confused' or 'incomplete' revolution (indeed from the *normative* point of view that to emancipate the region one must make a socialist revolution and not merely a democratic one) and an analysis of the forces of counter-revolution (i.e., the organized force of the ruling classes, which may contain popular elements)."

Even if I accept the underlying premises of this statement without argument, the point still remains that if a revolution is a ‘confused’ or ‘incomplete’ one, and amidst this alleged confusion and incompletion a multi-party parliamentary democracy is formed, socialists should still not be supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected leader by counter-revolutionary and anti-democratic forces. Indeed, this last paragraph actually validates all of the major points I made about the way in which these kinds of leftists have related to the Arab revolutions – engaging only with whatever sects they happen to agree with and orienting themselves on fantasies.