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Revolutionary Politics and the Trap of Populist Temptation: Thoughts on the Egyptian Left, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Revolution

The Revolutionary Socialists, a longstanding Marxist political organization in Egypt, recently issued a controversial statement calling on Egypt’s democratic forces – and the left, of course – to stop classifying the Muslim Brotherhood as part of the counterrevolutionary camp, which includes the military and security apparatus of the ruling elite. In what seemed to be a call to unite with the Brotherhood in a new revolutionary front, the statement said that attempts to create a “third alternative” to the current dictatorship and the Islamist opposition are no more than an implicit endorsement of the military dictatorship.

After widespread criticism of the statement, the organization’s political bureau issued a more detailed paper entitled “A Call to Dialogue.” The paper restated the same view as the initial statement, which is that the Muslim Brotherhood is an inherently reformist organization that cannot be grouped into the counterrevolutionary camp. It went on to say that the slogan “Down with all who betrayed [the revolution]: Military, felool ((The Egyptian Arabic word for the ancien régime)), and Brotherhood!” has outlived its usefulness, and that the current political reality requires openness and coordination with the Brotherhood youth undergoing daily persecution. The paper did, however, stress that this call for openness was not a call for an alliance with the Brotherhood, and that the initial statement’s criticism of “third path” adherents was misunderstood.

The statement and the explanatory paper are worthy of scrutiny and criticism in spite of the trivial political weight their authors have on the ground. Indeed, this is the most comprehensive attempt to date to express the prevalent opinion among the group that continues to call itself the “revolutionary youth.” The term, foggy and confusing at best, is used to describe non-Islamist, educated, and professional youth who are part of the current protest movement that started with the removal of the Brotherhood from power in July 2013. This group continues to work to restore the formula found in Tahrir Square in 2011; namely, all-versus-Mubarak, or, rather, all-versus-Sisi. Some members of this group are part of organized protest movements such as April 6 Youth or other less famous – mostly student – protest movements; others float among various political parties and organizations. Therefore, addressing the Revolutionary Socialists’ proposal is really an attempt to address the prevalent opinion among an important sector of the opposition to the current regime, more so than addressing the views of a Marxist group with limited influence.

Confusing Reformists and Revolutionaries

The vision set forth in the Revolutionary Socialists’ statement and paper is not only contradictory and confused but also dangerous, good for little more than reproducing the dichotomy currently prevalent in Egyptian politics, which confuses any popular movements arising from outside the circles of the educated middle class. Instead of supporting the development of any such popular movement and pushing it forward, this vision instead encourages it to line up with either of the extremes of the current polarization. Both the statement and paper reveal all the contradictions and confusion in the Revolutionary Socialists’ analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood as a reformist organization. This analysis carries forward as-is from past literature about the organization, most famously the booklet “The Muslim Brotherhood: A Socialist View” published in 2005, with absolutely no change. This kind of analysis overlooks substantial differences in historical and social contexts, as well as the content of the various political projects it comments on, leading to assuming similarities where there are none and differences in what is really similar.

In particular, the sixteenth paragraph of the explanation from the political office provides a specific understanding of the concepts of reform and “the regime” worthy of scrutiny. The paragraph describes the Brotherhood as a reformist force according to a completely superficial standard: its stance against the regime and the way it handles the demands of groups that have endorsed it. This understanding has two main shortcomings. First, the issue with considering the Brotherhood as reformist is not in whether or not the description fits. Rather, the problem is that the term is lacking in substance and devoid of context, useless for anything besides causing confusion. Focusing on the method of reaching power and handling the demands of the people as the single standard to differentiate between the various political groups ignores the deep discrepancies in the politics followed by these groups once they reach power, or even the programs and policies they present. In short, using “reformist” as a descriptor is meaningless and does not help one build a political opinion about an organization.

Further, the standard used by the Revolutionary Socialists to differentiate between revolutionaries and reformists is a very vague one: a group’s standing when it comes to the ambiguous body labeled “the regime.” As a Marxist group, the Revolutionary Socialists ostensibly value social and class standing and attitudes at least as much as they do political affiliation when deciding whether an individual or group qualifies as revolutionary. This paper, however, indicates their indifference to class struggle, welcoming capitalist Brotherhood members into the revolutionary fold and pushing leftists struggling to establish a third alternative beyond the current polarization to the reformist camp. The Brotherhood adopted policies during its time of controlling parliament and then the presidency that matched their predecessors, and in fact cracked down on personal freedoms.

A Rudderless Region

As American influence in the Middle East faded during the occupation of Iraq, various centers of power from the Gulf competed for influence in Egypt and the region at large. Money flowed from the Arabian Peninsula, supporting various factions and projects in Egypt, without a hegemon to enforce a certain level of unity among various ruling classes. Finding himself in this context, Morsi was lost between a deep yet fragmented state and pressures from his base and allies in the Islamist right, rendering him incapable of any “reformist” policies in the eyes of the Revolutionary Socialists, not even as simple as changing a number of governors. Such changes would have required endless confrontations with various groups in various institutions, all of them far too comfortable with the status quo to submit to such changes. Despite efforts to placate both the military and the religious establishment, Morsi lost their support as well as that of his revolutionary base. His failure to please these groups led to June 30, 2013.

The Revolutionary Socialists’ paper clearly neglects one thing: The Brotherhood project has always been an attempt to rescue the capitalist modernization project from its pitfalls by giving it a totalitarian theme and strengthening its patriarchal leanings. The paper offers the misguided idea that the Brotherhood “does not reach into the grand bourgeoisie,” in what seems to be a final attempt to clear the Brotherhood from their immature leanings toward increasingly backwards methods of capitalistic abuse of the people of the region. Here we come up once more against superficial terms masked with Marxist rhetoric. Politically representing the interests of the bourgeoisie is one thing while having those representatives themselves be members of the bourgeoisie is another. The critical distinction, is in the nature of the political project at hand and its biases rather than the class backgrounds of its adherents. Has the Islamic project, ever since the so-called “Islamic awakening”, not been sponsored by the various capitalist regimes of the Gulf? This sponsorship has continued in the whole region, with whole royal families promoting the Brotherhood project to its Western allies day in and day out as a means to control the regional peoples. With the death of King Abdullah, the Saudi royal family seems to be adopting a more diluted version of the Qatari interventionist approach, as seen in its actions in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, especially under pressure of regional competition with Iran.

The Brotherhood’s largest promoter outside the Arab region is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the major political promoter of Turkish capitalism this century so far. Other contributions came (and continue to come) from Brotherhood supporters in the Gulf. We could go on about the fortunes of Brotherhood members Khairat al-Shater, Hassan Malak, or Youssef Nada.

Where Does the Left Go from Here?

A number of questions now begin to arise. Is the view of the Brotherhood as an anti-civil, anti-democratic repressive force that is in sync with the Arab totalitarian camp mean that the civil democratic forces should be neutral to the suppression of Islamists? Does it mean that realignment with the Brotherhood is impossible under any circumstances? How is the left to deal with the masses of the Brotherhood and their supporters if not through direct alliance?

The answer to the first question—whether the civil democratic forces should stand by and watch the suppression of Islamists—is a resounding no, simply because there is no such thing as selective repression in the world of the modern state. The largest organized political group in Egypt cannot simply be eradicated without the suppression of all facets of civil life. Repression is by definition indiscriminate. If the aim of the paper and statement was to point out the danger of this slippery slope, which no impartial observer can deny that most leaders of the civil democratic stream have fallen victim to, then that slope should have been clearly identified by name. The paper should have then gone on to call on these civil democratic groups to take a clear stance in opposing the suppression of Islamists and to align with them. This alignment would not have necessitated organizing with the Brotherhood and could have been announced and practiced without what former Revolutionary Socialist activist Yehia Fekri called “the political boycott of the Brotherhood.”

Instead, the statement presented forgone conclusions about the future rather than criticisms of the past. It denied any possibility of an alternative to the current dichotomy in Egypt between the ruling junta on one side and the Islamist opposition on another. The paper then came along to ask us to work and coordinate directly with the Brotherhood, not merely support an anti-repression agenda. A call to such an alliance shows that there is a strong tendency inside the Revolutionary Socialists to repeat the 2005 experiment of aligning with the Brotherhood with no revisions. The statement and the paper try to balance this direction with vague language such as “openness to the Islamist youth who face repression every day.” Can this language possibly mean anything other than an outright alliance, even a temporary one, such as what is happening in universities now?

Does the idea of a political boycott of the Brotherhood cancel any future possibility for aligning with Islamists as in January 2011? The answer to that is also no. Realignment is definitely possible, but needs to be according to objective conditions that have not yet arrived. Such an alliance would be meaningless without a strong popular democratic movement with an organizational body capable of negotiating with the Brotherhood from equal footing. This alliance would also require a clear program that includes real compromises from the Islamists on the issues of personal and public freedoms. Without these two conditions, such an alliance would do more harm than good. The first condition requires the presence of a strong popular movement and enough deterioration in the ruling regime so as to force the various political forces to reach compromises and agreements. Egypt is far from that point for numerous reasons, including the fact that a portion of the public Islamist opposition resorts to violence while another resorts to outright terrorism, which naturally leads to confusion among the various popular movements. What the potential audience of the left needs to hear today is a clear condemnation of the path of terrorism undertaken by a number of Islamist factions. The strange thing is that the statement itself admits this need near the end, in clear contradiction to its central call for alignment with the Brotherhood.

All the left has accomplished by aligning itself with this Islamist movement was to alienate itself from richer opportunities on the ground. It has now presented itself to any budding movements as a passé group stuck in the dichotomy of the current political struggle over the fate of the Egyptian people. Therefore, as Fekri noted in the aforementioned article, the left is gambling on participating in the ongoing confusion of the various upcoming social movements and obscuring their path, dragging them to a defensive stance when it insists on linking them to the Brotherhood and their absurd questions of legitimacy. Meanwhile, these budding movements need a simpler, clearer, more modest, and less abstract working model than “Down with military rule!” They need new slogans to expose the propaganda of the current ruling class that attempts to link all opposition to the Brotherhood. In other words, a hasty rapprochement with Islamists today adds to the near impossibility of the creation of an independent popular movement that may allow for a more solid alliance with the Brotherhood in the future.

Another crucial condition for rapprochement with the Brotherhood is the presence of civil democratic forces able to manage this complicated relationship as an equal, with no need to draw in the military as was the case previously. Without that, any realignment would end up being a net victory for the Brotherhood with no discernible compromises on their part in terms of guaranteeing public and personal freedoms. In fact, such a realignment would lend the Brotherhood legitimacy to take up a stronger negotiating stance regionally and internationally as a non-sectarian political power. With that, the left would turn into one of the tools of re-marketing the Brotherhood as an alternative to the region’s failed elites. It would also cut short any chance for the development of mature civil democratic forces able to separate themselves from the military.

How Should the Left Deal with the Brotherhood if Realignment Is Not an Option?

The Revolutionary Socialists see no way to deal with this problem except through an alliance with Islamists, no matter how temporary. The word alliance gets thrown around regardless of whether or not the left, or the democratic forces in general, are in a political and organizational position to allow for such an alliance. This also highlights the Revolutionary Socialists’ populism, showing how they are unable to see any political force as anything beyond an ally or an adversary.

It is entirely possible to deal with the Islamist masses simply by providing the radical democratic social alternative, or the third path the statement claims is impossible and whose advocates it accuses of collusion with Sisi. In fact, presenting this alternative clearly, radically, and independently is sufficient to show the Brotherhood that there is an alternative other than the miserable floating revolution path they have been taking. Since history has taught us that it is nearly impossible to deeply affect the Brotherhood masses on an individual level, regardless of how open and cooperative one is, logic dictates that the left raise its own independent banner, which the masses can see and follow. Without this independent banner being raised halfway between the Brotherhood and the army – a banner that is not neutral when it comes to criminal repression – we have no hope of being identified by the democratic elements in the Brotherhood.

What the statement and paper offer is a call to join a movement we have no reason to belong to, which would lead to the legitimization of a repressive group in front of Western and regional powers, with no clear advantages. On the contrary, it is a call that helps confuse all who struggle in the slowly rising milieu of popular movements, putting them on the defensive. This is all due to a failure to resist the populist appeal and the moral arrogance that comes with it. The more certain groups continue to answer the call of this populist appeal, the farther we get from the formation of true revolution in our part of the world, a revolution that would be able to break down all power structures in a bourgeoisie society and open up the doors for a new social contract. All this will not happen by trying to align with the status quo instead of challenging it without rushing the inevitable moment of alignment, which cannot be brought forth by a hastily drafted statement from any group or another.