[GegenStandpunkt Index]


The national uprising in Egypt
Lots of turmoil — for nothing but a request for better governance, which the army fulfils

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-11, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

I.

The leaders of the Western world are caught off-guard by a people: even though the West did not order it, the Egyptian people refuses loyalty to its authorities! Wherever the ruling friends of freedom call for a refusal of obedience that leads to an overthrow of a regime, they themselves get the appropriate “revolutions” with their pretty nicknames underway. But no one in the political centers from which the free world is ruled reckoned that the masses in a country whose established, sovereign, domestic affairs are exceedingly interesting for a number of reasons would, on their own initiative, get out of hand in such a way. Hence, forming an opinion about the national uprising in Egypt takes a while, but then turns out to be all the more clear. The unanimous commentary is that it is a great thing that — and in particular how peacefully — the people on the Nile have initiated a “movement for freedom and democracy” (Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign secretary); and the patrons of these high values are by no means content with a mere message of greeting to the freedom fighters. They intercede by making use of the political influence they have for the good cause that they see the Egyptians having brought under way. First, they strongly advise the ruler to practice “non-aggression” towards his rebellious subjects — and shortly thereafter declare him to be as “intolerable” as does the crowd on the Tahrir Square. Admittedly, not for the same reasons. The protesters had hardly begun to somewhat destabilize the prevailing forces of power and already the ruling friends of freedom in the capitals of the world interpreted their distress as a desire to “return to stability.” And why this return is necessary is not kept a secret: the range of interests for which the Egyptian people has functioned so well and the reason why it definitely has to continue to function well in the future, too, stretches from its role in keeping peace in this well-known problematic “crisis region” to its secure supply of oil and car parts to the conservation of cultural goods and diving sites.

From now on, freedom and democracy in Egypt are firmly calculated as the new method that has to ensure rule in the land on the Nile, also after the era of the “autocrat” whose actions already stood for exactly that. Those experts governing in the West, who know very well how to deal with freedom and democracy and who are joined by their public-minded followers, start right away to proactively rack their brains regarding the question of what the freedom that would deliver the desired result would look like. The popular uprising is critically assessed according to the criterion of whether it fulfils all the requirements for the success of the purpose for which a democratically reigned Egypt is designated, and that, even before the question of power, is decided upon in Cairo. A look at the disgruntled mixture of toothless bakers and other poor wretches, doctors and poets, students with mobile phones and laptops, women in headscarves, and bearded men in caftans turns the mood skeptical: where is the leader they’re supposed to elect as soon they’ve gotten rid of their old one? What’s the name of the party that he heads? And what’s going on with the party of bearded men, which of course we know, but in no way want to be chosen for government? All these concerns are dealt with constructively. The West, seeing to a successful outcome of the uprising, which has been adopted under the slogan “democracy and freedom” as vehicle to promote their own interests, bravely decides on a biased definition of the people’s will underway at the moment. Whatever the details of what the people in Egypt might have in mind — the bottom line is that it simply must be subsumed under a democratically brought about empowerment of a new executive that then, of course differently than up till now, namely in a democratic way, guaranties “stability.”

This raises the question of what makes the people in Egypt deserve this sympathetic interest in a successful outcome of their revolt. After all, it comes from political rulers who usually have no tendency whatsoever towards friendship between nations as far as rebellions that do not conform to their interests are concerned.

II.

Their slogans clearly show what has moved the people in Egypt to revolt against their regime. They are positioning themselves against “corruption,” “oppression,” and “dictatorship,” and the reason for their rebellion is obvious: the regime’s actions have damaged their vital, material interests. However: the conditions they attack do not consist in ‘corruption’ — i.e., the bribery of officials and the impermissible use of one’s position for personal gain that normal, functioning, bourgeois democracies with a properly paid bureaucracy criminalize; nor in ‘oppression’ — i.e., the force that an unchallenged state under the rule of law prohibits its personnel entrusted with the execution of power from using. And these living conditions are even less adequately characterized by a negative report in regard to the items ‘party pluralism’ and ‘free elections of the governing personnel.’ What the protest movement condemns and attacks as autocratic and bureaucratic despotism, unjust personal gain of a few, and as excessive use of force is not only somehow ‘systematic,’ but indeed characterizes an entire politico-economic system.

For this is apparently how it is: like all occupants of the global market economy, the Egyptians also need a source of income; and in their endeavor to get one, they are confronted with a machinery of power that ubiquitously decides on the allocation of jobs, licenses for entrepreneurs and freelancers, loans, and in general on the conditions and means for earning money. This bureaucratic machinery acts against the people in the form of fellow countrymen who have gotten hold of a piece of state power — less on a free labor market for civil servants than by favoritism and bought patronage — and who use this piece of power in the same way to support their own protégés and to get paid for granting sources and means of wealth. It is possible to draw some conclusions about the fact that these conditions of allocation result in plenty of poverty and uncomfortable dependency on every level of the social hierarchy and possess the solidity of a nationally prevailing system. First, apparently, a nationwide scarcity of means of survival and sources of money is distributed and also prevails in the machinery that carries out the distribution of this scarcity. Because there is so little that can be distributed, there are so many who find themselves excluded from the sought for livelihood. When people get hold of a source of income, they find themselves dependent on state agents and official party functionaries who dispose over all the resources, and they find themselves damaged by the country’s habits of making money from state power. They are then also more or less compelled to act in the same way. Second, this system of managing scarcity reveals how Arab, or more specifically, Egyptian capitalism, functions: the fact that money must be earned in the service of another person’s wealth is certainly clear. But the capital accumulated by private employers in the country and invested from abroad is far from being sufficient for either the employment of all the available workers or a system of civil sources of revenue based on it. The economy that supports the nation is predominantly the work of state power. It consists to a considerable degree in globally marketing coastlines, oil deposits, and a canal, more precisely in a kind of political ground rent that the supreme power in the country collects. Furthermore, it consists to a great part in companies that are run by state agencies — not least by the army — or its protégés. It depends on the means that the government can procure and invest. A comprehensive, capitalistically productive exploitation of the people does not come about from this either, which is why the bulk of the population relies on the government-organized system of aid for the many poor for their existence at the poverty level. What is achieved in national wealth is not enough that the better classes could get their hands on it in free competition as befitting their status; instead, it is distributed and consumed by a civil service and a clique of functionaries who are, according to capitalistic standards, entirely superfluous and “bloated.”

This regime understandably attracts much discontent because it organizes scarcity. And it logically attracts all the discontent of the people because it does not hover above the hardships of its people and the unsatisfied demands of the better circles of its society as guarantor of universal law and order in a nice division of labor with a ruling class of private money owners, who, with their monopoly on the employment of society’s labor, earn the compliment of “employer.” Instead, it functions as the overall and sole distributive authority. For this reason, the state and the official party cannot make any positive use of mass discontent — unlike a functioning party pluralism in an established democracy. The desire alone for a far-reaching improvement of circumstances means a rejection of the established system of distribution and is therefore banned and prosecuted. And to the extent that something constructive results from the discontent when the afflicted take matters into their own hands — for example, a parallel network of care by the Islamic religious community with its own clerical hierarchy — the authorities rigorously distinguish between the social support and pure moral armament it likes its Muslim Brotherhood to provide, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a rivaling apparatus that creates its own dependencies and loyalty, questions the ruling top-ranking officials, and is therefore not tolerated: its cadres are murdered or locked up, while the pious community can continue to perform its good deeds in maintaining those in hardship; official and unofficial members of the national security service see to it that in their ranks, but also among the population in general, the widespread Islamic morality under no circumstances rises in insurrection as an oppositional agenda to the prevailing political conventions.

This is what a relevant minority of enraged Egyptians no longer put up with.

III.

When the Tahrir Square protest movement rebels against ‘corruption’ and ‘oppression’ and the ‘Mubarak system,’ then its motive is a deeply rooted discontent, not just with the bureaucracy under the president’s command that assigns people their — indeed unequal — circumstances of life; also not solely with the way in which the official party and the state act. Instead, it is indeed discontent with the mostly paltry, utterly frustrating conditions of existence that are imposed on the people and which are flagrantly in contrast to the forms of a bourgeois existence flaunted to the Egyptians on TV, shoved right under their noses in the form of consumer goods beyond their means, and impressed upon many via mobile phones and the internet. The movement however does not really choose these living conditions as the object of its protest, but rather focuses on their unjust distribution, the graft and bribery at work there, the severity when the authorities clamp down on any critique voiced too loudly and on the persons held responsible; so not scarcity and its cause, but the way it is administered. The demonstrators’ desire for change is radical; they want to tackle the roots of all the ills of their existence, caused by the dependency on functionaries and civil servants. But still, they fail to identify the system of Egyptian Third World capitalism, imposed with full force, and of the scarcity of direly needed sources of income as the cause of all their material and social misery. Instead, they point to the forms immanent to the system, by which the people are allotted their state-capitalistic existence of privation. And the bigger and more just their outrage, spawned by the beastliness of police brutality, the more determinedly it is turned against the topmost director of the machinery of force, who treats his rebellious subjects so badly, and against his stooges.

The protest has attracted much attention. In towns all over the country, crowds of people gather to give off steam about their disgust for the rabble of criminals who, in their view, cheat them of their opportunities in life. Among them are particularly many of the younger generation, who also participate in the Western techniques of culture in this country and thus give their uprising the name “Facebook revolution.” These many young people do not need any further collective shaping of political will for their revolt, let alone an opposing party; they simply follow the electronically replicated calls for emphatically and publicly lodging complaints about denied prospects and harassment from police and police informants. Some want to organize a bit of a liberal alternative space according to the motto, “let’s do something on Tahrir,” and wring the right to the freedom of assembly out of the state power assembled on the same square. As things stand in Egypt, this is also a counter-agenda to a life at the disposal of the authorities that has nothing to offer them. And it is commensurable with any discontent and all the despair that produces the upheaval. Everyone unites in the negative agenda item: Mubarak must go, his game is over, his time is up. And they also find a positive version for their, “away with…,” a demand that unites them all and sounds like a political program: The people want democracy!

Without a doubt, there are some in the protest movement who advocate an oppositional program, who pursue a political interest that they would like to build a party around, and who use to slogan “democracy” to demand that the state allow their cause. This is certainly true for the Muslim Brotherhood, who, similar to the communist parties of the past, are mistrustfully observed and assessed by the advocates of freedom; they expect some success for their reform program from free elections. Others want to take over from the ruling clique and their official party with their own organization in order to take on their function of directing the state machinery of distribution themselves, and, of course, run it in a manner that is much more just, and they therefore bank on being empowered by free elections. Who knows whether there is anyone around besides the foreign NGOs´ disciples and followers, whose demands for free party pluralism give voice to their interest in creating opportunities for ruling parties and organizations from the Western world to intervene in the economy and policy of Arab states. Most of the demonstrators demand “democracy” above all and certainly because they cannot imagine anything else under this slogan than a ruling power that listens to the concerns of the people, does not deny opportunities to live, but generously offers them and does not beat up or lock up anybody who pointedly voices his discontent. This notion has nothing to do with the reality of democracy and market economy, nor with Egypt’s capitalistic economy of scarcity and the requirements of its administration. “Democracy” — the positive common denominator of discontent with the Mubarak government — is the slogan for the abstract desire for popular rule. And that’s no good, because it makes one thing clear, namely, that popularity remains an abstract desire and rule the reality.

IV.

The Egyptian revolt is massive enough to raise the question of power, i.e., to question the power of the state party and the police, of the ruling families, and perhaps even of the machinery of the secret service. That’s the one side. The other side is that all the critique of the regime that is voiced ends up as a polemical distinction between a bad government that has to go and a good one that should replace it. And therefore the entire upheaval results in practically nothing but a petition for a referendum; an appeal from below to the highest authority, which stands above the conflict that the incensed protesters just initiated. This nonpartisan authority is supposed to help the people assert it’s rights vis-à-vis its bad regime. And in the eyes of the rebels, it is clearly the army alone that comes into question as such a guarantor of the true identity of people and leadership. This pillar that carries the hated regime’s machinery of force is evidently the only state institution that has not made its hands dirty with corruption and oppression, that can be relied upon, and that is suitable for the role of the powerful actor who can be entrusted with the hope for “freedom and democracy.” Without further ado, the protest declares the uniformed countrymen in their tanks to be the guarantors of a better Egypt.

And the movement is lucky with that: their naïve speculation — that the military could simply be separated from the machinations of its uppermost commander and the rest of his machinery of force and even be used as leverage to chase the ruler out of his office — is working out. In light of the apparent rupture between the masses and the present government, the military, chosen by the people to sort out the question of power, has indeed taken over the role of nonpartisan conflict mediator, solely concerned with the common good of the nation. It certainly does not do so because it would be foreign to the generals´ nature to “shoot their own people.” They take that to be misplaced, at the latest when they realize that the people, though revolting against political rulers, intend with all their furor to entrust the future system of government to the uniformed organs of state they appointed; and because, secondly, it is also and especially clear that the leading Western powers want to let their Mubarak fall and seek their salvation in an orderly, military-ensured transition to a new, stable situation in the country. So it is the army after all that saves the unity of the country. Mubarak’s last attempt to portray himself in an official speech as the father of the great, Egyptian national family and to hand its further welfare over to his fiercest bloodhound, appointed to vice-president, came too late. The military council sacrificed the individuals connected to the rupture between the people and the nation’s leaders and has taken over state power, of course only for the time being. As instructed, it dedicates its putsch to the overriding purpose of bringing the “transition to a democratic system” underway, to provide for a way for the state to deal with the people in Egypt in which the latter does not feel oppressed,and because of that finally feels like it is being treated justly and so is also quite at home. The army orders a constitutional reform that is supposed to guarantee legal forms in the future that allow the people to voice their interests, and, with that, declare the reason for all protest to be taken care of — and the demonstrators gather on their highly symbolic square to celebrate the victory they have won.

V.

The warhorses who have brilliantly proved their worth for 30 years as pillars of the “Mubarak system” and who also count among its leading profiteers are in no way overburdened by this task on unfamiliar territory; after all, ruling is not a trade that requires an apprenticeship. All leading organs representing the interests that exist in the country are invited to join in establishing perfectly designed democratic alternatives for the election; even individual groups from the Muslim Brotherhood, hitherto suspected of subversive activities, are allowed to apply for an upgrade to the status of a legitimate political party. But the governing military council primarily hears about the foreign interests in a successful democratization of Egypt, what it is supposed to do for them, and what it should definitely refrain from. Primarily their financial backers from America, but then, of course, also all the other powers with a special interest in a stable Egypt, offer their help to the new rulers. After all, they are experts in matters of democracy, and they make it very clear why a successful democratization of this country matters so much to them. The introduction of this method to empower the ruling personnel means especially one thing for them: an extraordinary opportunity to exercise influence; not only on this or that government decision, but on the formation of the will of the state, on drafting and implementing a suitable reason of state rule. For the first thing to be dealt with, the first step towards true democracy and free elections, is the introduction of a multi-party system; and that is something that the politicians in the home countries of democracy by no means leave to the native patriots and least of all to Facebook children. With their expert advice, they accompany the drafting of the admission standards for political associations so that the electoral freedom of the people will not let off steam in the wrong place and possibly even help the radicals among the Muslim Brotherhood gain a portion of the democratized state power. And those in charge from Europe and America meddle purposefully with words and deeds and with money and envoys from their own parties and party foundations in establishing electoral associations. These jockey reliable personnel into the state’s top positions and offer an array of agreeable, electable options to the will of the people, all of which agree that the country’s orientation towards the market economy, preferably with greater freedom for foreign investors, and including a contribution to the Middle East “peace process” and the guarantee of secure passage through the Suez canal, is unavoidable. Along the way, they proactively teach the people that they are designated for the fine task of establishing this new democracy without any improvement in their material lot; above all, the people should stay at home and not think that their new freedom entails the permission to enter Europe — this all the less so, says the German chancellor, as the newly gained freedom makes any imaginable grounds for asylum inapplicable… as if Mubarak would have ever counted as one!

At any rate, that clears up the question of what service any future rule in Egypt will have to provide and the standards it will have to meet thereby.

PS.

If there were a world spirit, it would have thought up the following joke in a whimsical moment and< immediately produced it as episode in world history: a president of the world’s leading power decides that the peoples on the globe, especially the Arab ones in the Middle East, urgently need democracy — so urgently that this gift of freedom would be presented to them, if necessary, by way of a forcefully imposed “regime change.” The man assumes that only this form of rule provides the necessary efficiency to integrate peoples into the business of governing in such a way that the final result is exactly the security and stability that America needs. Further, he is of the firm conviction that there is an American inside every citizen of the world anyway, who by nature feels the desire for freedom. His successor no longer wants to presume this. He — sobered by the results of this mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere — even considers the effort of inflicting war on the world in order to export democracy to be rather counterproductive, and therefore expresses his respect for “the cultural uniqueness of the peoples” onto which Western ideas of good governance should under no circumstances be imposed. Then these peoples, in their uniqueness, autonomously come up with their struggle for freedom and democracy, send their leaders packing — and thereby confront the nation exemplifying these magnificent values with a wonderful problem: How does one establish a truly democratic system as a philanthropic alternative to Middle Eastern despotism in such a way that it definitely does not mess up all of what the despot had provided?