A Morsi victory was better than a Shafiq victory, but the real power is still in the hands of SCAF says John Rees
Even those who had called for a boycott of the Egyptian Presidential election run-off were cheering the news alongside Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a packed Tahrir Square when the results were announced.
They were right to cheer. But they would also be wise to prepare for new battles.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been deeply implicated in disastrous compromises with the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has run Egypt since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011.
But for all this the Muslim Brotherhood are not the same as SCAF. And the MB has not yet gained a serious measure of political power, let alone control of the state machine.
SCAF are the executive committee of the Egyptian ruling class, the core of the ‘deep state’ of Egypt’s military industrial complex. The MB on the other hand has a mass base among Egypt’s middle class, working class and poor. Decades of opposition created the loyalty which led over 13 million Egyptians to vote for them in the Presidential run-off.
The MB leadership would like to run the Egyptian state, but SCAF have showed in recent weeks that they don’t want to share power with anyone, even an opposition as accommodating as the leadership of the MB.
SCAF have dissolved the elected Parliament and issued a series of decrees that reserve all the key levers of power for the military. Military spokesmen are talking about Morsi as an interim President who will have to face a new election as soon as the new Constitution is written, a process over which they have a veto.
This leaves Morsi as a figurehead without real institutional power. This is the case for most politicians in capitalist democracies, but Egypt’s is an extreme case. Walter Bagehot described the British Constitution of the 19th century as divided into a ‘decorative’ part and a ‘functioning’ part. The British monarchy, Bagehot thought, was merely decorative. But it was a central institution of power compared with the SCAF-neutered presidency.
So Morsi’s victory is largely symbolic, but that is not to say that it is without significance.
It is significant because of something that did not happen. The Egyptian elite did not force through a fraudulent victory for Ahmed Shafiq, SCAF’s favoured son. And it’s not that they aren’t technically capable of doing so. The Mubarak state rigged elections for decades and it could have done so again.
The fact that they did not do so must, at least in part, be because they feared the popular reaction. Since the dissolution of Parliament Tahrir has been rammed day after day by the old alliance of forces that operated in the 18 days of the original revolution: the MB supporters, plus liberals, plus the left. Everyone understood that completely depriving the MB of any semblance of power would be likely to spark a second revolutionary upheaval.
SCAF retreated from this option. They will now rely on bargaining with the MB over how much power they will allow them to exercise.
This is a process fraught with dangers for both SCAF and the MB, not least because the whole electoral process lacks full legitimacy with only 25 million of the 50 million Egyptian electorate turning out to vote.
Every time SCAF have tried to carve the MB out of power beyond a certain limit there has been a reaction on the streets: in last November’s ‘Second Revolution’, in this January’s one-year anniversary demonstrations on 25 January and again in this last week.
The MB have a popular base to accommodate, and that base has been disillusioned with the deal-making with SCAF over the last year and is now more alive than ever to the dangers to which this has given rise.
So there will be further tensions, arguments and falling out between SCAF and the MB. The MB are not equal to this challenge as their compromises over the last year show. Indeed, when one looks at the MB leaders since the overthrow of Mubarak the words of Karl Marx about the Prussian bourgeois leaders of the 1848 revolution come irrepressibly to mind:
‘...thrown up by an earthquake; without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, trembling at those below, egoistic in both directions and conscious of its egoism, revolutionary in relation to the conservatives and conservative in relation to the revolutionaries, mistrustful of its own slogans, which were phrases instead of ideas, intimidated by the storm of world revolution, yet exploiting it; [...] making a bargaining-counter of its own wishes, without initiative, without faith in itself, without faith in the people...’
This weakness should be an opportunity for the left and all those who want to complete the revolution that was begun in the 18 days. It is an opportunity for the left to break out of the vanguard of the ‘Republic of Tahrir’, even though this is tens of thousands strong, and address the millions of voters who supported all the ‘revolution’ candidates from Hamdeen Sabahy to Morsi. Treating MB leaders as if they are the same as SCAF will be counter-productive. Even more importantly, treating MB voters as if they are the same as their leaders will not get this task done.
The left needs a series of demands and campaigns around both democratic issues and economic issues which can unite all those who want the revolution to succeed, no matter how they voted. Morsi and the MB should be constantly tested against these demands, and against the actions called to achieve these demands.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.