Skip to main content

The Egyptian Uprising: Five Strange Claims

With all the elation over the fall of the Mubarak regime, more people are drinking the spontaneist and uncritical kool-aid that I initially criticized in an earlier post.  I am also excited about the toppling of a comprador dictator and the possibilities that will emerge from this rebellion; I have never maintained otherwise, though my critical, historically grounded, and nuanced position has caused me to be misinterpreted by overly excited comrades, friends, and acquaintances.

My position remains the same as the post cited above: this uprising will not become a socialist revolution and those who currently possess the most developed organizational structures (ie. competing sectors of the ruling class) will end up directing the rebellion and providing its class content––this is already happening.  This is not to say that I'm not excited, that I don't think it's possibly a progressive historical moment, though I must admit I'm more excited by the possibilities emerging in Tunisia, the uprising that has been shunted aside by the mainstream North American left in favour for the spectacle of Egypt.  In any case, I want to discuss some of the stranger claims that I have heard in the course of Egypt's exciting uprising.

1.  The Military is Our Friend

I think people are about to abandon this bizarre belief since the military is now saying they will ban the right of labour unions to meet and strike.  Still, until the military starts banning these meetings and strikes, I'm sure this belief will linger.

Since when has an army that has been built and trained under a dictatorial regime, an army that belongs to a comprador regime, ever been progressive?  If the army has come out against the Mubarak regime we should question WHY it has come out against this regime: this is not a Peoples Army, this is an army that is wed to the dictatorship of the compradori.  According to Al-Jazeera (which I am listening to right now), the military is beating protestors and denying food from reaching the centres of the city.

And yet many of my friends who should know better feel as if Egypt has suddenly slid outside of the course of history, is an entirely new event, and that the military was not the backbone of Mubarak's regime and that, even if it is finished with Mubarak, still possesses the ideological focus of the regime.  If there was an uprising throughout North American, and the military suddenly appeared in the cities to "protect" the people from the police, we would hopefully question the aims of a military that is deeply embedded in imperialism.  Not so in Egypt!  That military must suddenly be good, having shed the ideology behind its construction.

The only question about the military is whether it will align itself behind an emergent liberal democracy or unite with a new Mubarak-like regime.  And though the former might be more progressive than the latter, neither are properly revolutionary––which brings me to my next point.

2.  This is a Revolution!

When I hear statements like this I desperately wish everyone would do concept analysis on the word "revolution."  I admit that my philosophy training makes me grumpy when it comes to the misapplication of words, but I still believe that it is important, especially as leftists, to be clear about our concepts.

A revolution is something that alters the social relations at the base of the mode of production, a revolutionary movement is something that is aimed at altering these social relations.  Revolutions can be progressive or reactionary: we can imagine a monarchist revolution, after all, that aims to change the social relations of a given mode of production by returning them to a tributary society.  But revolutions are about fundamental changes in the economic base, not rearticulations of the superstructure.

In the 20th century there have been many revolutions and revolutionary movements, two of which were world historical revolutions: Russia and China.  World historical revolutions not only change the social/productive relations that define the mode of production, but are "new" in that they create, even if the eventually fail, universal developments in our understanding of revolutionary theory and praxis.  Before the counter-revolutions and capitalist restorations in Russia and China, however, the mode of production was fundamentally changed.  And though it was also eventually changed back in both instances, the revolutions overturned, they were still revolutionary.

This is not the case in Egypt where what is happening is an uprising, or a rebellion, that is not focused around changing the mode of production.  The primary organizing group that was engaged in sparking the spontaneous uprisings, as well as directing them, is a coalition of middle class elements, spear-headed by ElBaradai's organization, that eerily resembles the proposed coalition government.  The demands of this group are bourgeois demands: they are not about changing the fundamental social relations of Egyptian society, they are not opposed to capitalism or even comprador capitalism.  Even if these demands are transcended by elements involved in the uprising, the uprising is now veiled in the class content of its primary organizers who possess the structures and vision to focus the rage of the masses.  Clearly, if this group succeeds in establishing its vision the Egyptian rebellion will be progressive; if it fails, and the army comes out on the side of another Mubarak, then we can see the rebellion being suppressed by another reactionary sector of the ruling class.

In any case, demanding a secular democracy in this day and age is not revolutionary, though it is progressive in the context of Egypt, because a secular democracy, as we should know, can exist quite happily with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and even with the dictatorship of the compradori––though in the case of the latter a secular democracy will also have to deny certain social reforms in order to prop up the labour aristocracy in the centres of capitalism.

The revolutionary movements of the 21st century, those that are united around a vision of a society beyond capitalism and imperialism, are by-and-large ignored by the North American left.  I know I'm repeating myself, because I complained about this in my earlier post about Tunisia and Egypt, but I think this point needs to be made again and again.  Why is there no general excitement around the revolutionary storms in Nepal and India, why no support for revolutionary groups in places like Afghanistan that have been organizing for years?  These are truly exciting and revolutionary possibilities.  And even in the case of Nepal, whatever one might think about the internal struggles of the party, there were exciting uprisings and mass demonstrations––but that were focused around an ideology that demanded the end of imperial-capitalism.  As leftists we should be more excited about these possibilities and be ready to defend them against imperial intervention.  And yet, despite American former involvement in propping up the regime in Nepal, we had no mass demonstrations in support of Nepal's revolution; they were forced to overcome this obstacle without any global internationalism.

Instead, we throw our excitement around mass uprisings that respond to objective conditions but lack the subjective conditions of revolutionary organizing.  I am not arguing that we should not support, and not be excited by, what is happening in Egypt.  Rather, I am arguing that if we are truly leftwing and not simply social democrats, we should support those truly revolutionary movements, those movements that connect to the historical concept of revolution.  Our revolutionary imagination has become truncated, degenerating under the belief that capitalism is the end of history.

3.  Don't Compare Egypt to Anything Else - Its "Revolution" is Historically Unique!

Why do people want to resist historical analysis and live behind some historical veil of ignorance when it is clear that the only way to make sense of any social development is to examine this development in context?  Perhaps the rejection of history, of comparative analysis, is what allows us to believe that Egypt will be a revolution and we desperately want revolution, no matter how naive we must become.  It is this rejection of historical analysis, therefore, that allows us to make the above mistakes: we can pretend that the military is also historically unique, we can throw around the word revolution without any historical understanding of the concept.

Furthermore, if the people in Egypt are not allowed to compare their uprising to other similar historical situations (they aren't, actually, as one of the links I posted above should demonstrate), then they would not be able to ground their revolutionary options in the radical understandings hard won by the masses who shed much blood throughout the past two centuries.  Their sacrifices should teach us how to struggle, how to understand struggle, and we desecrate their memory by pretending they have taught us nothing.

If we can speak of revolutionary uniqueness in any sense, then we must examine those world historical revolutions: those that rejected their modes of production and brought universal understandings of theory and praxis through their successes and failures.  In the 20th Century there were only two world historical revolutions, and though there is much debate over the lessons gleaned from these revolutions, they were new lessons (and not new or unique in some ahistorical sense) that can teach us, and have taught us, far more than a possible secular capitalist rebellion––an echo in the Egyptian context of the French Revolution.

(For example, we can look at the rebellion against the Pinochet regime in Chile and the transition to its secular democracy after the fact.  But Pinochet was five steps backwards from Allende, and the rebellion that ousted him did not return Chile to the Allende years but just advanced it one step forward again.)

To imagine that Egypt's rebellion emerged from an historical vacuum, that Egypt was just waiting outside of time and space as an unchanged orientalist landscape, and that the uprisings there are somehow disconnected from multiple uprisings throughout the world.  Moreover, it prevents us from understanding the root reasons behind these uprisings: the objective conditions caused by the capitalist crisis.

There are uprisings in Mexico, for example, that were not sparked by the uprising in Tunisia but, like the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, they were produced by measures caused by the current crisis.  And Mexico is simply one example: before Egypt and after Egypt, we will see these rebellions spread as the masses react to the parasitical limits of capitalism.  Whether or not these rebellions become revolutionary, however, depends on the subjective conditions of organization.  Refusing to examine Egypt in any historical context, however, prevents us from giving it proper sense.

4.  The Egyptian "Revolution" is Great because it is Peaceful.

Although this claim seems rather strange, and I almost think it should be dismissed out of hand, because it has been made over and over, I think we need to interrogate its core assumptions.  So far the Egyptian uprising has been defined by its "peaceful" currents, and how its prime organizers have worked to ensure that they did not lead the people into a bloodbath, but this does not make it great.

If the masses in the street are not disciplined, are not organized in a militant manner and armed to combat the military, they will be crushed.  Again, this is another important point about revolutionary structures, however loosely understood: if the people are not trained to fight the army, or at least not organized to be ready to fight the army, then they will be defeated.  (Note that I do not buy the Gandhian thesis, nor do I believe that the peaceful elements of the Civil Rights movement in the US were responsible for its gains, and I think there is a lot of historical data that proves this.)  I realize that by making this point I will offend those who abide by point three above, who want to imagine that Egypt outside of history, but it needs to be made.

Obviously the ideology of the prime organizers, being elements of the secular bourgeoisie, are touting this pacifist line.  The more radical elements of the uprising, however, whose demands transcend those of the main organizers, are not bedazzled by this pacifist rhetoric.  Earlier, I cited an article from Egypt that discussed the history of the 1946 Egyptian strikes, and concluded by demanding that the workers stop listening to the middle class organizers and organize for a real revolution.  And though I worry that this strategy, because the revolutionary structures are generally absent, will lead to another failed Spartacist Uprising, this position is clearly revolutionary in content.

But what will the people who make this complaint do if and when the workers and more radical elements of the rebellions reject suppression, perhaps even the suppression of the possible secular democracy, and pursue a struggle that transcends the rebellion's initial demands?  I would like to suggest that this claim plays the age-old game of dividing "good" rebels from "bad" rebels, the former being good because they are peaceful and law-abiding.

5.  Tunisia Doesn't Matter Anymore.

Well yes it does.  In fact, although I believe that Tunisia was also a rebellion and not a revolution (conceptually speaking), the uprisings there possessed more revolutionary content: revolutionary structures have emerged in Tunisia that, so far, are absent in Egypt.  So many activists do not want to learn from Tunisia, and what is happening in Tunisia, when they speak of Egypt––which is odd, considering that the rebellions in Tunisia sparked the rebellions in Egypt.

Although I agree that the transformations in Egypt are important for the alignment of global imperialism (such as how this will affect Israeli colonialism), I find it extremely strange that Tunisia is now being ignored.  To be honest, it was half-ignored in the North American left landscape when it first happened: during its first weekend I recall talking about it to friends and comrades and they stared at me blankly.  As soon as Egypt happened, however, everyone was glued to their television screens.

Generally, my complaints about all of these complaints are due to the North American left's myopia.  If we are to be proper internationalists––that is, internationalists capable of critically supporting international struggle––we have to have a broader vision, a clearer understanding of revolutionary demands, and a willingness to support more struggles, especially revolutionary struggles, then those presented to us by the bourgeois press.  The Egyptian Intifada is important, yes, but I would argue we can only understand its importance if we engage with it properly rather than make vacuous, ahistorical, and uncritical pronouncements.  The most radical elements fighting on the streets in Egypt are not making these pronouncements, after all, because they understand that these are the product of bourgeois ideology: our international solidarity should be with this sector of the rebels.


  1. Yet another objective and sobering post. Not sure if you read this on the Kasama site yet, but would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this article.

  2. Thanks Mao Minh... I haven't read this specific article yet, Kasama posts a lot every day and sometimes it's hard to keep up (and there are other sites I prefer to keep up with first): it seems from first glance that it's making similar points about what makes a struggle "revolutionary."

  3. A good comparison is the 1986 People Power "Revolution" in the Philippines.

  4. Definitely a good comparison. Actually, the first comment on the post I cited in the article (the post from Egypt by a leftwing demonstrator) references the Philippines and makes the following point: large-scale uprising ousted Marcos, but didn't lead to a revolutionary state of affairs. Of course, post the uprising, there is a Peoples War that is still involved in revolutionary struggle.

  5. We've been having discussions about this at work. Certain of my co-workers (the non-metis/native type) have been calling this a revolution and continually pressing on the "peaceful" nature of it. It's not hard to tell they're getting their information strictly from the bourgeois media.

    My argument is that this is no revolution, for if it were, there is absolutely no way that the U.S., Canada, Israel, the Europeans or their running dogs would be doing anything other than howling loudly (and moving swiftly) against it. The would be no way that major violence would not be taking place. There would be no way the bourgeios media would be reporting on this the way they are.

    The military's statement regarding upholding "Egyptian" international commitments was also quite telling. Of course, this has much to do with assuaging Zionist Israeli (very dramaticly expressed) fears of an end to the peace treaty with Egypt; I also took it as a message that Egypt will not be rejecting the U.S.-dominated capitalist world order. The IMF, World Bank, foreign investors etc. have nothing to worry about.

    I've asked my co-workers if they really believed the government and ruling class of Canada would actually support the revolutionary overthrow of the very system that maintains their parasitical existance. My metis and native co-workers know the score and laughed loudly, nodding their heads.

    Comrade J., it's hard to believe (well, maybe not that hard) that members of the academic left, and I don't mean SDs and Libs (they'd call a mass rejection of re-flavoured Tim Hortons coffee a revolution), are calling this a revolution. A bunch of people basically stranded in the cold, dark, Canadian north with little or no access to scholarly research on the subject, know better.

    Maybe that's because the word's been passed down to them through generations of oral history to beware compradores on chiefs' clothing.

    Great analysis anyway J.


  6. Thanks for this. And I thought I was interpreting something wrong when I was unable to participate in the excitement that many of my friends were experiencing!

  7. Glad you liked it Ritika... I still find it exciting in many ways, I just don't have the same excitement that some of our friends (as you know) have about this becoming some new and unique revolution on the stage of world history.

    And RRH, I'm obviously in agreement with much of what you said. I still think, though, that, as with every authentic rebellion, there will be revolutionary demands that transcend the demands of those who possess the organizational structures to give the rebellion its class content. Getting Mubarak is good, but the only reason I think America is waiting is because they still think they can massage it into a position that fits their interests. In some ways they seem bemused that all of this is happening in the first place, and clearly they are somewhat unwilling to intervene directly because their hypocrisy would be utterly evident. What will be interesting to observe, however, is what will happen when the workers continue to push for more and more revolutionary aims, as they have just started doing: I don't think they have the organizational capacity to overthrow the state, and it seems more likely there will be a crackdown of the Spartacist Uprising variety. One of the articles I cited did mention that the rebellion only begin to veer towards possible revolutionary aims, though still unfocused, four days ago when the workers started organizing.

  8. Thanks JMP - I really appreciate this well thought-out analysis.

    Besides a potential comparative lack in media coverage (I'm not really sure if there was a great disparity in media coverage between the two rebellions or not), why do you think there has been a dismissal or ignorance or lack of excitement about the rebellion in Tunisia?

    Also - I'm so surprised by point #3. It's so incredulous to think that the rebellion in Egypt sprung out of nowhere and is somehow "sacred"!

  9. I think maybe the lack of excitement around Tunisia is due to the fact that Egypt occupies a more strategic position in the middle east: it borders Israel, for example, and so that communicates to a whole range of imperialist contradictions.

    To be fair, point #3 is more one that is being made by acquaintances who are more social democratic and liberal-minded. It has been echoed somewhat by the left, but not to the same uncritical level by the semi-activist folks who are overly excited by secular democracy without content.

  10. This reminds me in some ways of a recent piece that appeared on Signalfire, "Slum dwellers and luxury apartment renters together? We don’t think so!", critiquing the neighborhood defense patrols that emerged in Egypt.

    I say this because while I think some elements of the critiques are fair (e.g., naturally rich patrols and poor patrols are defending some different things and have obvious conflicting aims in the end), the question is more the potentiality and the trajectory, and probably patience. As the workers strike after experimentation with these forms, things will naturally cross-pollinate within a context of class conflict, especially as they reject their government union bosses. It's not spontaneous, it's struggle.

    What I mean is, don't write it off so quickly. It seems pessimistic and a little ideological (and even a little arrogant, no offense), kind of like framing a painting before it's finished. There are battles to come and already the game has shifted with the workers joining the struggle. What I look for is elements, moments, tendencies and trajectories. Specifically, I'm watching women and the workers (acknowledging the overlap between those two categories).

    Sometimes I think that it's the sheer speed of this uprising, combined with it's leaderlessness, that has ignited a sort of fear of the post-modern in some revolutinaries, especially from those inclined towards the hard line on organization. George Katsiafica writes about the Eros Effect, which I have found useful here, even if it sometimes feels a bit too metaphysical for me. Still, there's something there that people are plugging into.

    Importantly, and maybe I should have said this first, there seems also to be a fear of innovation, I think, amongst those steeped in revolutionary theory. As if social revolution and it's tactics froze at one point, many years ago, or at some place other than Egypt now. The eternal fear of, "What if the anarchists were right?!", lurks not far off as well. This is not to say we anarchists are right here, since it's far too early to say in my opinion if anyone is right on this point -- or needs to be -- but this is definitely in the background, I think, for many.

    That is, if I can frame it negatively, there is a lot ideologically and, if can psychoanalyze here, psychologically invested by some in the Egyptian struggle NOT succeeding because so many elements in it disappoint those with rigid views on the organizational and vanguard question of revolution. I don't accuse you of this, but I have seen this amongst many communists, churning out as they do their many tracts into the ether asserting the scientific certitude of the absolute necessity for communist leadership in Egypt.

    This fear of innovation, I think, is not useful. It is rigid and tending towards reification of forms of struggle, conditions, etc. Things are not so set in stone, I think. Struggle is not a science, not a formula. Best to think of our categories as something flexible, at least somewhat, not as iron laws. This goes for all of us I think. These events are learning moments, not points to look for the validation of our theories, especially in the negative sense of the failure to appear of our favorite forms of struggle. Likewise we should not invest too much in them when elements we like do appear.

    There are good reasons to be excited about what is happening right now. For those of us dedicated to the total eradication of the existing order, satiation always remains elusive, don't you think, until it doesn't?


  11. Fair enough, and the points are well taken. To be clear, however, I am also excited and have been excited since the beginning: my point has always been sober criticism. The post I wrote directly after this one was meant, after all, to demonstrate this excitement. (And then there's my response to the Kasama critique of my position.)

    So yes I do think there are exciting possibilities. But I want to ask why we always do this in these moments of popular uprisings that lack revolutionary structures of any sort? And in this article, I wanted to ask why people were so "I love the army" or "you can't make any critique" or "let's not talk about Tunis." Some of the exciting things you mention in this comment, after all, are prefigured by Tunis: I want to see a movement emerge from Egypt.

    My point has always been that these uprisings by themselves won't lead to socialism. Now maybe I'm wrong. And maybe I am invested in old ways of organizing. But spontaneism isn't new, either, and has been shown, time and time again, to have failed immediately - though maybe not over the long range.

    However, your point about psychological investment is well-taken. In fact, I didn't want to write anything about Tunisia or Egypt at the beginning because I feared that by writing it I would become psychologically invested––and there is something to be said about that fact, that commitment to writing puts you into a corner. But my thoughts have changed enough over the years, coming from an anarchist to autonomist to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist position, that hopefully I'll do the same as I've always done: denounce my previous position when concrete circumstances prove me wrong. Hopefully.

    As for investing too much in movements when elements we like appear... in my opinion it's not about "liking" something but whether this something is historically salient. I think there are always new possibilities, but I also believe (and I think history itself makes this argument) that these possibilities only appear when movements learn from the successes and failures of history. For example, there are possibly new and exciting possibilities in Nepal that I haven't made my mind up about yet, and maybe I don't even "like" them... but I do see them as coming from a structured and focused understanding of the past. Other ortho-maoists, however, have been quick to denounce these developments and often I think this is because, as you have pointed out, they are invested in a certain understanding.

    But Tunisia and Egypt so far resemble the spontaneist movements of the past and I think (and I really really do hope I'm wrong) that the point is always we need organization: what is going to be built afterwords; is it just going to be chaos; what are the goals of our struggle? These are questions that require a structured focus - or at least I think they do.

    If I sounded arrogant I apologize. Actually, these five categories were responses to arrogant, and I felt ignorant comments, of activists who wouldn't listen to interior critiques of arab activists. Seriously. And maybe, as I pointed out in my response to Kasama, I'm just dealing with a different left than the left south of the border. Here in Canada we move from one cause to another, speaking for what they mean over and over without looking at the concrete reality, and abandon the other struggles as soon as they're no longer "cool."

    But yes, as I hope the post after this one shows, I am excited about new possibilities - I just feel this excitement needs to be complimented by sobriety. There is too much excitement in my context right now and not enough critical thinking, that's all.

  12. Oh, and I meant to add that I liked your fourth paragraph about the speed of this movement and the fear this speed has caused. I think we can universalize this, however: every popular uprising in history has emerged with this sort of speed, and often the speed obscures the history of organizing (and often the crushed organizing) that has contributed to this speed. Which was my point in posting the link to the left Egyptian blog about the history of workers struggles in Egypt. Still, it's a good paragraph and point.

  13. mm i think limiting the understanding of a revolution to a marxist or maoist interpretation bound to capitalism and mode of production is actually very north centric and is only reflective of north america's obsession with the cold war. It is clear from history, that revolutions aimed at transforming who holds power to mode of production has not led to lasting political and social change - you can't be cynical about the excitement towards a certain historical moment and reprimand leftists for not feeling more excited about others. It comes off as a bit defensive.

  14. Personally I do not understand how speaking of the importance of being critical, while supportive, is "defensive." Rather, it seems defensive to just embrace something without any examination of concrete circumstances. Nor do I think a marxist/maoist interpretation is "north centric" considering that the left tradition of Egypt is extremely marxist. In fact, the majority of revolutionary third world movements are predominantly marxist: to write this off as north centric is actually to do the same thing (as multiple third world left intellectuals have accused european and north american based post-colonialists of being).

    Moreover, it is actually clear from history that revolutions have led to lasting change. The French Revolution, and successive capitalist revolutions of that sort, did change the face of history. As did the Russian and Chinese revolutions that, though ultimately failed, completely rearticulated the face of the globe.

    To ask questions about potential blind spots (ie. the bizarre love of the Egyptian military when the Egyptian left itself, that is the elements involved in the radical trade union movements, were opposed to its emergence) is just good critical practice. The eurocentric left that is fascinated with third world movements without actually doing the hard work of understanding how these movements emerged tends to see them all as disconnected, jumping from one to the next, and forgetting the reasons for past failures. If we are to be taught by failures and setbacks, we need to approach things critically: that is, not condemnatory and, at the same time, not naively blind to possible problems.

  15. I really appreciate the way you frame the difference between rebellion and revolution. I think it's an important distinction that is somehow lost in the hype around Egypt.

    One of the small fears I have when "revolution" is misapplied, and at the risk of being simplistic, I can't help but be reminded of Orwellian cautions, where the misappropriation of terms can lead to the displacement of ideas, thoughts, and eventually actions.

    It's also sort of important to know why this is being framed as a revolution (while there is, as you say, little general excitement around Nepal and India, etc - examples that encompass more the idea of revolutionary struggle) and what sort of ramifications it could have for the future.

  16. The ramifications are definitely important, but I think it will take a few years to see exactly what they mean...

    Orwell, who was sometimes a reactionary and sometimes not a reactionary, was definitely unto something about how misappropriated terms lead to a displacement of semantic meaning. At the same time, though, language is always in flux... but yes, it's good to make sure that our concepts, especially the most important ones, do retain their theoretical richness.


Post a Comment