After Mubarak, It’s the SCAF-terparty

(I intended to post this last week, but due to some issues with posting on WordPress, I was unable to do so until now. Other than there being a new Egyptian president, most of the post is still relevant.)

News outlets buzz with stories about the failing health of ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Yet does it matter whether the former despot lives or dies? Even if he passes away in the next few days, the institution he used to govern the country – the military – retains their hold on power. The tens of thousands people returning to Tahrir Square, the main site of Egypt’s protests during the Arab Spring, are not coming back because of Mubarak. They are resuming the expression of their dissent because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals currently ruling Egypt, has declared strict limitations upon the powers of the newly elected president. Who that newly elected president is, however, is unclear, as both the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and the candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, have proclaimed victory. All this follows on the heels of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is closely linked with the SCAF, dissolving Parliament and giving a seal of approval to Shafiq’s candidacy, despite his ties to the brutality of the Mubarak era. Egyptians are rightfully concerned that their new democracy is at death’s door, not Mubarak.

Is it fair to blame the Egyptian people for the dark prospects their revolution faces? After all, it is long-entrenched institutions have stymied and reversed democratic reform, not the people, who cannot be accused of a lack of enthusiasm for change. Nevertheless, one can fault them for the half-measures with which they have sought that change, enabling the generals and their judicial allies to undermine and reverse the gradual seizure of power away from the narrow elite. Two developments especially testify that the Egyptian revolution has been stillborn: the emergence of Ahmed Shafiq as a serious contender for the presidency, and the very fact that the SCAF rules the country in the first place.

Given that the ongoing narrative is that Egypt just went through a revolution, it is illogical that Ahmed Shafiq could potentially be the new president. It would be the equivalent of the French Jacobins electing a member of the royal family to head the National Assembly. The former prime minister who once described Mubarak as a “role model” does not stand for where people want the country to become in the future, but rather what it used to be. Who would want that? Those who benefited under Mubarak, of course. Mubarak ruled through the military, and army officers would be understandably reticent to see that end. Additionally, there are the millionaires who thrived despite the growing income disparity and rising poverty of Mubarak’s Egypt, along with crooked bureaucrats and other officials who enjoyed luxury thanks to nepotism and graft. Every revolution has its reactionary elements.

More worrying are those among the oppressed who nurture that which destroys them. Long-suffering Coptic Christians fear what will happen under an Islamist administration rather than a secular one. Liberals disenchanted with widespread support for the Muslim Brotherhood have decided to sit on the sidelines and sometimes even vocalized preference for a liberal dictatorship than a religious democracy. Then there are those who simply want stability for stability’s sake – for someone to fill the power vacuum, regardless of who they are or what they represent as long as they can bring order and a return to “normalcy.”

These people are buying into the very argument Mubarak attempted to use for his continued stay in power. He claimed that without him there would be anarchy. Of course, as my former professor Diane Singerman and the famed intellectual Slavoj Zizek have pointed out, Egypt is so unstable without a strongman government precisely because Mubarak crushed civil society and let it languish, ensuring that only those institutions groomed and developed by him – the military chief among them – could ever hope to impose themselves on the country. As Zizek put it, “The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.”

Mubarak is no longer relevant, but his military cronies remain. The assumption is that the SCAF will only fill the void, playing a transitional role before standing aside, giving up the control and influence it has enjoyed with near-exclusivity for around thirty years. We are expected to regard SCAF as Atlas from Greek mythology, holding up the heavens as a punishment, a begrudging but necessary responsibility, one that those belabored generals would only too happy to relinquish – especially to candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very organization the Egyptian military has spent decades upon decades stamping out, the very “enemies of the state” they have been indoctrinated to despise. How naïve would someone have to be to accept this fiction? The SCAF will hold on to power, tooth and nail, and whether the acts of the last few weeks speak more to uncertainty and confusion than to a genuine stealth coup d’état ultimately matters little. The outcome will be the same: the dream of democracy in Egypt remaining just a dream, an experiment too dangerous for the public to actually realize.

Egyptians should take a lesson from history and know that when the state is weak and vulnerable it cannot be trusted to change for the better. It must be torn down and destroyed, then rebuilt on new terms, on new conditions, with the people overseeing the project by themselves. The generals of the SCAF should not be sitting behind desks making executive decisions but standing before a firing squad – or, at the very least, on planes to sit at the Hague, in the stead of Mubarak, their former boss.

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State Power or Power to the People?: Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions Today

Lenin once declared that, as long as the state exists, there could be no freedom. Given the growth of state power around the world in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent global War on Terror, it would appear that Lenin’s vision of freedom is more out of reach than ever. Does it therefore follow then that rebellion and revolution are impossible in the post-9/11 period? This essay uses Theda Skocpol’s analysis of popular uprisings in France, China and Russia to argue that, in actuality, the structural conditions necessary for successful social revolutions still exist. Despite the considerable resources at their disposal, modern states continue to undergo major crises that they cannot cope with, even in an age with so much significance assigned to stability and continuity. Additionally, as the Arab Spring attests, classes still unite into powerful coalitions via shared interests that undermine the status quo and demand a broad reconstruction of the political, economic and social landscapes. Of course, just as Skocpol describes the required conditions for social revolution, she also stresses the constraints placed upon elites as well as revolutionaries, and in the current epoch consideration of such constraints remains relevant, as no major international incident occurs within a vacuum. Indeed, the question becomes not whether radical reform can emerge to shake the state, but whether it can endure myriad forces arrayed against it to create a lasting and meaningful new order.

In each case study within States and Social Revolutions (1979), Skocpol finds a crumbling “old regime” unable to institute “reform from above.” Absolutist monarchies, once relied on to safeguard servitude of the lowest classes, proved impotent to answer competing military power abroad and to satisfy basic needs at home. For Russia, it was the devastation and humiliation brought on by defeat in the first World War, while France and China could not adequately meet the demands of landed gentries agitating for greater autonomy. It was only when “top-down” change due to structural parameters failed that revolution “from below” became credible; the revolutionaries found themselves knocking on open doors. Presently, in the developing world, countries fall generally within two categories: (1) those witnessing economic growth through open markets and liberalization, birthing nascent bourgeoisies eager for empowerment, and (2) cash-strapped states, typically contending with severe Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), relying on force to hold onto power through fear and intimidation. In the developed world, advanced countries follow a trend of maintaining public appeasement through tax cuts and benefits programs, while also operating in an international environment where foreign intervention – justified either as “humanitarian interventions,” preventive strikes to halt the rise of even the possibility of existential threats, or both – is commonplace. In the case of the Third World, the parallel with the restless, newly influential French and Chinese middle classes is clear, while the unsustainable use of brutality amidst squalor invokes comparison with Russia after total war. As for the First World, states cannot maintain solvency when they are little more than gigantic pension funds with equally massive armies. Countries that are more the former than the latter, such as Greece and Italy, descend into much-protested austerity; while those that are more the latter than the former, such as the United States, alienate those they occupy and pay a high domestic cost for doing the occupying – in terms of “war weariness” as well as body count. Moreover, all countries at all levels of development must contend with neoliberalism’s economic hegemony, and the crisis borne from its prescriptions of deregulation.  The recent financial crisis affected all countries, and the inability of states across the board to either hold those responsible accountable or to enact reforms to prevent its repeat evidences that states are more beholden to global capitalism than the other way around. In sum, states may be more “muscular” after 9/11, but they are not perfect, and Skocpol argues that when states reach a critical juncture of failure, revolutions are not just possible – but inevitable.

Whether a revolution has potential or is automatically in the pipeline, someone has to lead it. Skocpol comments that the “patterns of class dominance” determine this, with dominant classes (outside the state) often working in tandem with the oppressed working classes to bring down the state. We see this today, most recently with the Arab Spring, and Egypt serves as case in point. The revolution began with trade unions, as workers demonstrated for improved conditions and higher wages, and was supplied momentum by the downfall of an authoritarian regime in Tunisia by grassroots protest. This galvanized the liberal intelligentsia, who had long campaigned for democratic reforms, in addition to other sections of the population, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The consequence was a national movement acting as a “broad tent,” and while the revolution could not be described as a truly social one due to constraints upon the process (to be described below), there was clear consensus that the state had to be transformed. Just as the revolutionary classes were not “equal winners” in Skocpol’s cases (the liberals triumphed in France, for example, while the peasants prevailed in China), it seems those favoring a moderate religious party have subordinated the secular Egyptian intellectuals. Meanwhile in the United States and the United Kingdom, the last few years have seen a flood of collective action, as primarily middle class groups – affluent, well-educated white adults in the Tea Party, disaffected college students in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements – have taken to the streets. While not genuinely embracing revolutionary tactics, such protests are linked by grievances that transcend singular policies and speak to a more general displeasure with the system as it is operating, part of a grand narrative that professional politicians have lost touch with citizens and are unwilling to defy vested interests to make tough decisions. Certainly, in terms of class interests alone, the “squeezed middle” in developed countries could feasibly make common cause with more traditionally repressed fragments of society to realize an overhaul not just of one particular regime but the system itself.

So why do they not do so? In her book, Skocpol writes about constraints upon classes. The Russian peasants, for example, gained independence and solidarity after their emancipation, but did not achieve true impact as a force until the disintegration of the military weakened state coercion. Similarly, disgruntled groups in the Third World may conceive their own independence and solidarity through the advent of civil society organizations (such as the aforementioned trade unions), but state coercion decides the issue as insurgent groups do not gain from a fractured military (as in Libya as well as Egypt). Swift and merciless suppression as seen in Bahrain and Syria are more typical. In instances where movements with an agenda of reworking society take power democratically, e.g. the socialist successes in Latin America and parts of Africa, multinational corporations and transnational economic institutions apply pressure to ensure new governments do not deviate too far from the neoliberal project. In cases where they do, as in Venezuela, what follows is isolation and vilification as a deviant anomaly. In the First World, the constraints are primarily cultural. Despite the obvious appeal for the working class to be at the forefront of unrest, they have been notably absent. One can explain this by their demonization in society as inherently uneducated and incapable of sophisticated reasoning – the “white trash” of the middle U.S. or the “chavs” of urban Britain. The middle classes are disinclined to ally with those dismissed as deserving their servile status. Given this dismissal, the working classes retreat into their own “false consciousness,” rallying to a cultural narrative that they are the “real” backbone of their country and their interest should be in defending tradition rather than crusading for change. As for the middle classes themselves, they are lulled into the liberal hope of “revolution without revolution” as Robespierre described it: the ability to affect upheaval without shedding the unpleasant blood, sweat and tears necessitated by drastic action. They are quick to identify the programs and policies they do not like, but their faith in the importance of the atomized individual – a chief cultural standard – makes sacrificing personal self-interest in order for delayed gratification unthinkable. The winds of change cannot surmount the barricades of their sense of self, and consequently these winds are only so much noise against the shutters, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

State power is neither invincible nor undying, despite the enlargement of authority that followed terrorism’s rise as a locus of international anxiety. People are still anxious about a great many things in addition to the suicide bomber lurking under their bed: the ability to trust their leaders, to hold them to account, to earn a living and provide for their families and to participate meaningfully in decision-making. When states fail in these areas and lose the cornerstones of credibility and coercion, the potential for their downfall is there. Yet a line of dominoes does not begin falling on its own; it must be pushed. This is why recognizing Skocpol’s attention to constraints is so essential to her work. Looking around the world today, we see the conventional barriers to revolution, chiefly in the blunt instrument of state oppression. Yet Skocpol omits cultural values from her analysis, which is unfortunate, as value systems can be just as important to structural analysis as the state and its institutions. Many years ago, Skocpol “brought the state back in” to aid in comparative political research. Perhaps it is time to bring social norms into her still useful approach as well.