14 August 2013

Egypt: revolution, counterrevolution or Thermidor?

Today will probably prove the bloodiest day in Egypt since Mohamed Morsi was forced from office. The interim government, which looks more and more like a military junta, has dispersed Morsi supporters from large protest encampments. In reprisal, sympathizers with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have launched reprisal attacks across the country on those they consider the beneficiaries of a coup against democracy, particularly the nation's Coptic Christians. Despite protests and some resignations by liberal leaders, the military most likely retains mass support from those Egyptians who still fear the Brotherhood and the prospect of sharia more. As an outsider, I know I wouldn't want to live under sharia, but the more the new regime kills people, the more you wonder about Morsi's alleged offenses against democracy. How much blood was on his hands? If there is still a revolution in Egypt, who exactly are the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood and its friends still claim legitimacy and see their cause as the true revolution betrayed by the military and the old guard behind them. The liberals still think the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution by its allegedly authoritarian conduct in power, but by siding with the army against the outcome of an election haven't they betrayed at least democracy, if not the revolution? Each side has its argument, but they can't all have their way. A revolution is an act of coercion; you are with it or against it. The continuing struggle to define the Egyptian revolution means that no one is safe. The Brotherhood may see itself as the revolution, but it is well known that they were latecomers to the protests against Hosni Mubarak, and it can be argued that if revolution means doing away with the old order, the Brotherhood itself must go. Dating back to the 1920s, it was probably the nearest thing Egypt had to an official opposition under the old order. Taking a broad view, it was as much a part of the old order, despite its adversarial stance, as the military itself. Its vaunted organizational advantage over new groups and new parties assured it victory in the first elections, and while complaints against that advantage, not to mention arguments for delaying elections, sounded like sore losing, it could be asked whether such an advantage enjoyed by any party was consistent with revolutionary conditions. After a revolution all parties start at zero or else one party, embodying the revolution, sets the agenda exclusively. Given its organizational advantage, the Brotherhood either becomes the revolution or it becomes the revolution's greatest enemy. If the people (or at least a majority on the streets) and the army agree that the Brotherhood is not the revolution, it's hard to see how they can allow the Brotherhood to survive. From that perspective, lamentations over the demise of "liberal democracy" in Egypt are beside the point. A revolution, not democracy, is at stake -- and there is no guarantee, given the army's role, that any revolution will survive the destruction of the Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood are Egypt's Jacobins -- proceed analogously with caution -- then the army's dominance is Egypt's Thermidor, the moment when radicalism succumbs to conservatism. If the liberals are the Jacobins, and the Brotherhood the old regime, the army may still bring about an Egyptian Thermidor if they, not the liberals, set the subsequent agenda. Not that there'd be anything wrong with a Thermidor if Egypt as a whole benefited from it. But "Egypt as a whole" doesn't mean everyone in Egypt. Scores have died today as the revolution continues, and the revolution will not continue, however it ends, without more dying. If we could all just get along, there wouldn't be revolutions. Until we can, there will be.

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