Reviving Nasser

A review of Gilbert Achcar’s The People Want

By Pete Brown

(CV #49, August 2014)

A review of The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising by Gilbert Achcar, translated from the French by G. M. Goshgarian. University of California Press, 2013.

What attitude to take toward the Arab Spring? This is a major question debated in left circles today. Some activists who cooperated in anti-war efforts in 2003-04 around the U.S. invasion of Iraq find themselves on opposite sides when it comes to the uprisings in Libya and Syria. Though most leftists don’t have any trouble supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and other Arab countries closely allied with Western powers, some Trotskyist groups and other “leftist anti-imperialists” find it easy to denounce the rebellions in Libya and Syria.

The rebellion in Libya succeeded in getting rid of Qaddafi, but in Syria the fight against the despot Bashar al-Assad is still going on. The rebellion began as peaceful demonstrations demanding reforms, but when Assad responded with bullets, the people began arming themselves and insisting on Assad’s departure. Many of Assad’s own soldiers, even generals, deserted him and joined the rebels. But Assad only escalated his attacks, using air power, artillery, and tanks against the rebels and nearby civilian areas. Around 100,000 people have been killed, and millions displaced. But still Assad could not suppress the rebellion, which was able to take and hold suburbs of Damascus. Assad then became desperate and attacked rebel-held areas with poison gas, killing hundreds with Sarin.

This sharpened the debate within left circles as to what attitude to take toward Assad and the rebels. Those who stand with the rebels, such as CVO, sympathize with the masses and their hatred for the ruling despot. But many so-called “leftists” and “anti-imperialists” think that because Assad is disliked by the U.S., there must be something good about him. So they join Assad’s cheering squad, helping him murder thousands of working class people. They’ve jumped to organize demonstrations calling to “defend Syria” and equate this with defending Assad’s regime – as if the regime is not itself the main enemy of the Syrian people. These “anti-imperialists” think the principle of self-determination gives national governments the right to murder their own people without criticism from others. They think NATO’s bombing of Qaddafi’s troops was a horrible crime, but they don’t see anything wrong with Assad bombing Syrian cities and towns. They have no sense of where the sympathy of working class people belongs, so we call them “non-class anti-imperialists.”

Gilbert Achcar is a professor specializing in Mideastern history and politics. Achcar is not part of the anti-revisionist left, and his views do not give a Marxist view of things even though Achcar quotes Marx repeatedly and seems to think of himself as a Marxist. But his book, The People Want, is worth looking at because Achcar is somewhat realistic in his assessment of the Arab Spring. Achcar has been an advisor to various Arab opposition groups and has helped gather support for them in Europe and America. In the U.S. Achcar is now affiliated with the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Solidarity Network (website menasolnetus.wordpress.com) which is sponsoring a debut for Achcar’s book. Two main slogans of this organization are “Support revolution” and “Oppose intervention” (by the U.S., NATO, etc.). Addressing his book to leftists, Achcar argues that the status quo in Arab countries is rotten and ripe for overthrow by the masses who are sick and tired of languishing under despotic regimes. This includes the so-called “anti-imperialist” regimes of Qaddafi and Assad.

Achcar tends to prettify the movements and their bourgeois-liberal participants, and he is naively optimistic about their prospects. This is covered over with a lot of Marxist-sounding rhetoric which is partly exaggeration and partly just noting a few facts. So there are limits to how much activists can take from Achcar. But his opposition to the non-class anti-imperialists and their diehard support for Qaddafi and Assad is refreshing.

“Neo-Patrimonial” Regimes

Achcar takes the concept of “patrimonial” regimes and extends it to “neo-patrimonial” regimes.  Examples of patrimonial regimes are traditional monarchies set up or supported by Western imperialism as guardians of the Middle East in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, etc. after World War I. Achcar says these regimes are all beset with tribalism, sectarianism and regionalism. The ruling family is not just a nuclear family but an extended family including a clan and tribe. The rulers promote their own sect or brand of religion over others, politicizing the split between Sunni and Shiite Islam. And the rulers promote the interests of their own home region over others. Achcar considers these traits backward survivals of a previous era but also universal features in the Arab world that give it a unique “modality.”

Some Arab countries – notably Egypt and Iraq – underwent revolutions that overthrew the Western-leaning monarchs and replaced them with more secular regimes. Thus Achcar considers Nasserism as modernizing and secular and having some leftist tendencies, though he also recognizes dictatorial tendencies in Nasserism.

What makes Achcar different from the typical “Qaddafi leftist” is the recognition that these revolutionary regimes degenerated in the ensuing decades. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat (who succeeded Nasser) reversed Nasser’s more popular policies, made peace deals with Israel and the U.S., revived Islamism and even brought the Muslim Brotherhood into government to some extent (though the Brotherhood’s extremist wing eventually killed him). After Sadat, Mubarak continued doing away with any leftish tendencies in the regime, promoted the Israel-U.S. alliance, and opened Egypt to neo-liberal trade and investment. Mubarak also began promoting his own family and grooming his son as a possible successor. Similar backward slides were made by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez el-Assad in Syria and Qaddafi in Libya. Thus these countries saw the construction of “neo-patrimonial” regimes, semi-monarchies in which one family dominated and promoted the interests of its own clan, religious sect and region. Achcar argues that these regimes were not that different from the Western-allied monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, etc.

Achcar couples this with a theory of the economic foundation of these regimes. Throughout the Middle East, he says, governments rely on income from oil and natural gas and other mining concerns. As a result, governments do not depend on working out compromises between groups of capitalist interests the way they do in more developed capitalist countries. Governments have a steady income stream from mineral concessions and don’t see the need to consult different industries, much less the masses, about how to devise taxation. Hence they don’t consult anyone on policy either. The rulers concentrate on handing out concessions to their family and tribe, regional and religious cohorts. Giving favors thus exacerbates differences and causes the groups left out to nurse grievances against the regime.

This is the background to the Arab Spring. It wasn’t just a whim on the part of the masses, nor was it simply a desire for some superficial political change. Despots like Qaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria had been discriminating against regions, religious groups and clans for decades, and this had built up intense hatred against them. Former friends and allies had been left out of the crony capitalist regimes and had turned against their former colleagues. Like Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines, the rulers eventually became isolated to such a degree that their overthrow was practically inevitable as soon as some match could ignite the tinderbox.

Achcar oversimplifies the differences between countries, but he has a point about how opposition to the regimes built up over decades. He tends to overlook the differences between Arab countries like Egypt, with its large urban population and massive poverty, and the oil emirates. But as Achcar points out, even Egypt – though it doesn’t have a lot of oil — derives a large portion of its income from natural gas concessions. And Egypt also derives a significant amount of income from the oil emirates themselves, which give foreign aid, loans, investment money, etc. to Egypt. So Achcar considers them all one of a piece. And though the Egyptian regime was a military dictatorship rather than a feudal monarchy, Achcar argues that it was devolving politically and socially into a regime more like an oil emirate. The same was true of the Qaddafi and Assad regimes.

Achcar’s  Support for the Mass Movement …

Capitalism has developed quickly in all the Arab countries, but Achcar insists that it’s different than in Western countries because it’s centered on oil production. The regimes’ reliance on oil concessions allows the survival of feudal, anti-democratic traits. These need to be overcome before these countries can develop in a “normal” way. So Achcar says democratization is the specific “modality” of revolution today.

Achcar endorses the mass movement as it exists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc., while also opposing intervention by Western powers. He says (truthfully enough) Western imperialists have supported reactionary, anti-democratic regimes in these countries for decades. Achcar ridicules the Western powers’ call for democracy and “good governance” as hypocritical and absurd, given the “bad governance” nature of the regimes they have supported. He argues the regimes could not be reformed and turned into models of democracy – the rulers and their cronies simply would not allow it. They had to be overthrown.

He also argues against the “leftist anti-imperialists” who think of the regimes in Libya and Syria as exceptions to the Arab “modality” and who characterize those regimes as progressive or anti-imperialist. Achcar shows that Qaddafi and Assad were just as anti-democratic in their own way as the pro-West regimes of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia. Qaddafi and Assad practiced tribalism, sectarianism and regionalism just like the monarachs and emirs of the Arabian peninsula.

This is where Achcar’s book makes a contribution to the present debate about the Arab Spring. Achcar laughs at the notion that Qaddafi was in any way anti-imperialist, as he made oil and gas deals with European powers and cooperated with the CIA’s rendition program. Qaddafi was also notorious for cooperating with Italy’s anti-immigrant program, helping Italy imprison African refugees and return them to Africa via Libya without so much as a hearing on their humanitarian needs or refugee status. And Achcar laughs at the stupidity of the position, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; but this is exactly the position of some Trotskyist groups who think that a ruler who has contradictions with Western imperialism is therefore a friend of anti-imperialists. Some Mideast rulers were notorious enemies of leftists despite their contradictions with the West. Achcar helps bring a dose of reality to the debate within leftist circles with his support for the mass movements and his noting basic facts about the crony capitalist regimes in Syria and Libya.

… Based on His Theory of “Modality”

Achcar’s support for the democratization movements is welcome, but it doesn’t need a special theory of “modalities” to justify it. Achcar thinks capitalist production in Arab countries is held up by special forces that need to be overthrown in a revolution before Arab countries can undergo “normal” capitalist development. Achcar feels the  need to prove Arab countries have a special “modality”, in order to justify supporting the overthrow of existing regimes, a “revolutionary” movement not directly connected with the transition to socialism. To that end he tries to prove that Arab countries have not developed as they should.

But Achcar exaggerates things in this attempt. He paints Arab regimes as economically incompetent, subject to “Islamic barbarism,” and by implication paints Western regimes as economically healthy and politically and culturally progressive. This is only implied; in his other activities Achcar has participated in attempts to build alternative left parties in Western countries and opposed imperialist intervention in Arab countries. So it’d be wrong to say Achcar regards Western regimes as healthy and progressive. But that would be the logical conclusion judging from this book.

Achcar overlooks capitalist development that has occurred in the Arab countries and doesn’t see their backward features existing in Western countries. He describes Arab rulers as simply piling up oil income and investing their money in Europe, the U.S., etc. This, he says, is what accounts for their high levels of unemployment; instead of investing in domestic industry and hiring native workers, the “rentier” regimes squander their money in conspicuous consumption or send it overseas. But the fact that the emirates have a class of non-productive rich parasites sitting on top and holding back progress doesn’t make these countries unique. Crony capitalism, racism, etc. are not unknown in Western democracies. Achcar laughs at the antics of the emirs, that they squander money on constructing tall buildings, etc. But in fact a good deal of capitalist development has occurred in the oil emirates. These regimes are not just feudal sheikdoms ruling over a collection of agricultural/pastoral tribes. They run modern corporations and media empires like Al-Jazeera as well as oil concessions.

Look at Syria. Assad has discriminated against Sunnis (Assad’s base of support is the Alawite sect), and Assad has favored his own family above everyone else, handing out government concessions and  jobs to his brothers, cousins, uncles, etc. Nonetheless there has been a good deal of capitalist development in Syria. In the last twenty years the rates for births, deaths, fertility and infant mortality have dropped considerably, so the structure of  Syria’s population tends more and more to resemble a European country’s. Cancer has become one of the leading causes of death, which is an achievement for a developing country and shows that its people have been able to make headway against age-old problems like parasites, infectious diseases, etc. Syria’s GNP per capita has increased by two and a half times; this is a faster growth than the U.S., even though Syria’s absolute numbers are still way behind. Syria has quadrupled its production and consumption of electrical energy in the last twenty years, while U.S. electrical production has gone up by about one-half. Literacy in Syria has jumped from less than two-thirds of the population to about 85%. While the number of telephones in the U.S., per person, has tripled, in Syria it has multiplied by over 13 times. And even though Assad has tried to limit the spread of satellite TV in Syria, the number of TVs per person has quadrupled. Meanwhile the structure of Syrian industry has changed, with agriculture declining and financial services increasing.

Thus Syria has undergone capitalist development even during the crony regime of the Assads. This doesn’t mean the regime is progressive or anti-imperialist. Assad maintains close relations with imperialist powers like Russia and tries to position himself as a regional player in the Mideast. What it means is that capitalist development is not a one-way street with “normal” progress toward greater democracy and social equality. Similar statistics could be cited for other Mideastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. These statistics show the source of increasing pressure on the regimes, as the masses coming more in touch with modern technology and organization demand more political rights.

Achcar uses comparisons with South Asia and other areas to make it sound like the Arab countries have uniquely high rates of unemployment. But with unemployment at 25% in Spain, even higher in Greece, and chronically high in Britain, etc., it’s hard to see that the Arab countries are that unique. Even in the U.S., where official unemployment is now down to 7.2% from its high a few years ago, underemployment is endemic, and the real unemployment rate is probably at least double the official figure. Unemployment is a universal feature of capitalism, including in South Asia and other regions. In fact poverty is so pervasive in South Asia, and jobs so difficult to find, that many workers emigrate to Arab countries to get any kind of job at all.

Achcar is correct to criticize the backward features of crony capitalist regimes. Nonetheless capitalist development has been rapidly proceeding, including in Libya and Syria. Land reform which first helped many peasants has been turned into capitalist agriculture that drives people away from their villages to linger among the unemployed in large cities. Neo-liberal trade and investment and the hiring of cheap foreign labor, deprived of rights, enriches a few while impoverishing many. This process is similar to what’s happening in South Asia, East Asia, Latin America and other regions. And it’s similar to capitalist development in Western countries.

Achcar makes it sound like overthrow of the existing regimes will usher in an era of social peace, harmony and “normal” capitalism. But the masses will still be faced with massive problems as removal of the crony capitalist regimes will intensify, not eliminate, the class struggle. Achcar makes it sound like the resulting regime will be a happy coalition of workers, capitalists, poor peasants, etc., everyone working together happily as long as they aren’t misled by “Islamic barbarism” or interrupted by imperialist intervention. He’s right that democratization will be of great benefit to workers, as it can help the efforts to build and strengthen independent organizations. But workers will still be faced with the dictatorship of capital and the need to confront it daily. Similar democratizations in recent years – in Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, etc. – have shown that such a transition opens the door to a wider class struggle but does not end it. Keeping that in mind would help activists maintain a realistic picture of prospects for the Arab Spring.

Strategy for the Future

Achcar sees how rotten the crony capitalist regimes are. He supports the mass movements enthusiastically and rejects criticism of them. Compared to the diehard defenders of Qaddafi and Assad, this is refreshing coming from a “leftist anti-imperialist.” But it doesn’t answer questions of strategy within the opposition movement itself. Democratization is the big issue in Arab countries today, and for workers this means pushing the movement as far as possible and building an independent trend in its midst. Simply gushing over the movement will not help strengthen it and make democratization easier and faster.

Achcar directs his internal criticism of the movement only at the Muslim Brotherhood, not even at political Islam in general.  He distinguishes the Brotherhood from the “moderate Islamist” party AKP of Turkey and attacks the Brotherhood for its cultural backwardness and pro-capitalist ideology, which he shows to be consistent with the dominant neo-liberalism. But he overlooks the pro-capitalist orientation of the bourgeois liberals and “moderate Islamists” themselves. This is crucial, especially now that the liberals’ opposition to the Brotherhood has led them into supporting the revival of open military dictatorship in Egypt. With their support of the military’s overthrow of the Islamist president Morsi, the liberals have led the movement in Egypt into a blind alley. Without an independent trend, workers are faced with the choice between supporting military dictatorship or supporting the Islamists. Dealing with political Islam is important, but the liberals’ way of doing it led to disaster. Achcar is correct that Morsi had no solutions to the economic problems facing the Egyptian masses, but the same can be said of the military despots who pushed him out.

This is illustrated by the strike by workers at Egyptian Iron & Steel, one of Egypt’s largest public sector companies. Since 2000 the number of workers at this company has been reduced from 28,000 to 12,000. And in recent years the government has been cutting back on pay and benefits for the remaining workers. In the last year this has reached the point where the government doesn’t even meet contractual obligations to the workers, holding back part of their pay and benefits. So the government’s move toward neo-liberal cutbacks has continued despite the change in regime. Fed up with these cutbacks and fed up with their do-nothing union, the workers began a slowdown in late November and carried out a strike in  December.

This shows the importance of independent organization for the working class. Disorganized as they were, workers could not hope to dominate the movement in Egypt soon and push it towards socialism. But at the least activists could work to build workers’ organizations and to distinguish these from the organizations of bourgeois liberals and to show workers that the liberals’ policies are no better than the Islamists’. And they could use their organizations to push for economic and political reforms.

It’s not that Achcar opposes moves toward working class independence. He supports the moves toward trade union independence that occurred in Egypt and Tunisia and shows that these were crucial in developing the political opposition in past years. He expresses hope that independent trade union centers in those countries will become bases of electoral coalitions that can win national elections, and he says, “The consolidation of democracy itself presupposes the existence of a strong workers’ movement independent of the state.” (p. 240) And he shows that the absence of a strong workers’ movement in Libya and Syria made it more difficult for the opposition to get started and gave the regime the chance to nearly smother them with violence. But Achcar suffers from the same confusion as many other opportunist groups in his inability to distinguish genuine independent trends from social-democratic or Nasserite trends. In this respect he lags behind the movement, hoping for the emergence of a strong workers’ movement but not helping build one.

Achcar’s book was finished in 2012 shortly after Morsi’s election as president, and he’s intent on showing what’s wrong with Morsi’s program. But Morsi’s Islamism was not the only problem for workers. They still faced the deep state left over from decades of Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser to contend with. This deep state has reared its ugly head again and reaserted martial law, slaughtering hundreds of Morsi supporters along with others who opposed the military coup. Despite supporting their own form of strict Islamism, various Gulf states backed the overthrow of Morsi. And Obama and other Western leaders go along with the military regardless of their professed regard for democracy.

But Achcar’s book lacks any warnings of the military’s possible comeback or about the liberals’ connivance with it. He’s only worried about “Islamist barbarism” and leaves readers with the impression that workers must at all costs ally with the liberals against the Brotherhood; anything else may subject Egypt to “barbarism.” Thus he neglects the prime necessity of building an independent workers’ movement.

Nasser Updated?

As the opposition to “Islamist barbarism”, Achcar promotes the Nasserite party Karama and its leader, Hamdeen Sabahy: “Sabahy has manned his post in every battle against the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. … [I]n a [presidential election] field defined by two Islamic candidates (Morsi and Aboul-Fotouh) and two men of the old regime (Shafiq and Amr Moussa), all of whom had incomparably bigger campaign treasuries and better media coverage, he came in third after Morsi and Shafiq, garnering more than 20% of the ballots cast …. His score in the … two main urban centers was still a bigger surprise: here he out-polled all the other candidates, taking 27.8% of the votes in Cairo and 31.6% in Alexandria.” (p. 238) Achcar goes on: “Sabahy’s election results demonstrate the existing left’s potential in a profoundly ‘Islamized’ country such as post-Nasser Egypt … He gives the lie, in the clearest possible fashion, to all those who take it for granted that a left that defends socialism has become a negligible quantity ….” (p. 239)

Sounds good. But what is Sabahy’s politics exactly? “Sabahy proclaims his allegiance to the ideals of Nasserism without defending the Nasserite regime’s dictatorial nature. His electoral program included measures for consolidating democracy … [and] revival of the state’s role in development to be financed, notably, by raising taxes on profits.” (p. 239) This is the politics Achcar supported in the presidential election of 2012 and which he still defended as of fall 2012, when Sabahy was organizing opposition to Morsi’s new Islamist regime.

Achcar says Sabahy stood for “consolidating democracy”, but this is hard to see from Sabahy’s own electoral program. The main thing he was known for on this front was his opposition to elections until after a constitution had been written, while the Islamist candidates like Morsi were content to rest on their popularity and go ahead with elections before a constitution had been written. Liberals like Sabahy raised this issue to try and slow down the rush toward elections which they knew the Islamist candidates would have an edge in. Sabahy also made a big deal about separation of powers, insisting that a new constitution should have limits on presidential powers and should guarantee oversight by an independent legislative branch. He thought this would limit the masses’ infatuation with Islamism and allow the liberals to supervise day-to-day operation of the government. Sabahy thought the ideal regime would be one where the Islamist president was counterbalanced with a liberal-dominated parliament. He never discussed how the ensuing gridlock would be resolved.

In his campaign Sabahy never raised the problem of the enduring deep state and the independent military, which is practically a state within a state. With its fingers in various enterprises, the military controls a large part of the Egyptian economy as well as holding a monopoly over armed violence. The question of civilian control of the military was never an issue with previous presidents, since they came from the military themselves. But the post-Mubarak regime raised this problem sharply, and Sabahy never addressed it except to say he favored Nasserism over Islamism.

Other issues of democratization were never raised, or at least not stressed, by Sabahy. What about the role of religious minorities, women’s rights, the release of political prisoners, the repeal of Mubarak’s “emergency” laws, etc.? It’s absurd to say Sabahy stood for “consolidating democracy” when he didn’t campaign on these issues.

On the economic front there was a pretty clear demarcation of Sabahy from Morsi. While covered over with Islamist rhetoric, Morsi stood for more neo-liberalism, more free markets, and more suppression of the workers’ movement – simply a more pro-capitalist extension of Mubarak’s policies. Sabahy on the other hand stood for a revival and extension of Nasserite state capitalism, of spending more on state investment and hiring more workers by state enterprises. To finance this Sabahy proposed higher taxes on the rich and in particular proposed a one-time levy of 10% on the estates of rich Egyptians (the upper 1% of the population). These were popular proposals and helped Sabahy win votes among the urban masses. They also won the enmity of neo-liberal partisans like the New York Times, which warned in an article of December 26, 2012 (“First fighting Islamists, now the free market” by David Kirkpatrick) that “Among Egypt’s opposition figures, Mr. Sabahy has the biggest base of support in the streets”, but that “He is an outspoken opponent of free-market economic moves in general as well as of a pending $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that economists say is urgently needed to avert a catastrophic currency collapse.” The Times much preferred “other more Western-friendly voices of the opposition, like Mohammed ElBaradei, the former United Nations diplomat, and Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister.” But they were worried that “[N]either has Mr. Sabahy’s following at the grass roots, and he speaks for a segment of the Egyptian public deeply suspicious of free markets and, especially, the IMF.”

This confirms what Achcar was saying about Sabahy’s popularity. But it also shows the importance of building a workers’ movement independent of  Nasserism as well as political Islam. Some of Sabahy’s economic prescriptions were popular, but by tying them to Nasserism Sabahy ended up tailing the bourgeois liberals and backing a resurgence of the militarist deep state.

Ever since the overthrow of Mubarak a very sharp struggle has been going on over the outcome of the democratic struggle. It would be a gigantic step forward for the workers to develop and strengthen independent organization that puts forward their own demands as part of this struggle. But for workers this means pushing democratization as far as possible. It doesn’t mean just a few economic reforms and a written constitution with 18th-century separation of powers. Beyond the call for free and fair democratic elections, it would include: workers’ right to organize independent unions; workers’ organizations built on a secular, non-sectarian basis; workers’ right to strike; people’s right to demonstrate, free speech, free press, etc.; women’s rights; freedom of religion and the rights of minorities; dismantling the “independent kingdom” of the military and bringing it under civilian control; support for workers’ economic demands as well as other oppressed sections of the population.

Achcar promoted Sabahy as a “socialist”, but Achcar’s idea of building a pro-socialist trend is to support Nasserism and hope that a genuine socialist trend will eventually emerge. But if building an independent workers’ movement is not taken up as a conscious project by leftists, the workers’ movement in Egypt will remain swaddled in Nasserite confusion.

Post-Coup Confusion

A good example of Nasserite confusion is the military coup of  June 2013, which the liberals generally supported but then, when it became more obvious what the military was up to, they split in all directions. Prior to the coup the Nasserite Sabahy had become one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of secular liberals which planned to run against the Islamists in parliamentary elections. But as elections approached and the liberals saw themselves outmaneuvered by the Islamists at every turn, they decided to boycott. They called for delayed and reorganized elections, and to this end they led demonstrations that threatened to paralyze the country. At this point the military intervened and overthrew Morsi on June 30.

One of Sabahy’s co-leaders of the National Salvation Front was Mohammed ElBaradei, who actually helped plan the coup. He acted as the designated negotiator for the liberals and met with the head of the military, Defense Minister Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, in the days before the coup. He helped al-Sisi work out a transitional government. He was present when al-Sisi announced the suspension of the constitution and the removal of Morsi from power, and a couple weeks later ElBaradei was named vice-president responsible for international relations. (Wikipedia article on ElBaradei)

A number of other political groups, human rights organizations and political parties – even including some Islamists – supported the June 30 coup. But as the military cracked down on dissent, this flock of chickens began to fly the coop. For July 24 al-Sisi called for massive demonstrations in support of the coup to intimidate the Islamists. At this point, put off by the military’s offensive, some groups began to have second thoughts and to withdraw their support for the coup. Then on August 14 the military organized massive attacks on Brotherhood supporters, killing at least 525. At this point ElBaradei decided he’d had enough; he resigned his post as vice-president and fled the country.

So liberals began flying in different directions. But through it all the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahy remained a staunch supporter of the military, even after the killings of August 14. In interviews afterwards Sabahy insisted that “We will stay hand in hand, the people, the army and the police.” And he confidently predicted, against all evidence, that “Egypt will not return to the times of Mubarak.” (Euronews, 8/21/2013) Through the storm of international criticism Sabahy busied himself rounding up support for the military regime from kings and emirs of the Arabian peninsula. And he worked to cover up the need to push forward democratization against the military as well as the Islamists.

[Since the article was written, Sabahy consented to run as the only opponent for al-Sisi in the presidential election of May 26-28, 2014. The election was held under the repressive conditions that have prevailed since the military coup, and it was just an empty facade to hide the military dictatorship. No real opposition is legally allowed in Egypt; opponents of the coup languish in jail; and the press and TV have been purged. But al-Sisi needed to run against someone if the election was to have even the faintest appearance of legitimacy, and Sabahy consented to be al-Sisi’s fig leaf. Even so, so few people voted that it was an embarrassment for the government, which extended the election for an additional day. The official results gave Sabahy 3% of the vote.—CV]

Thus events have quickly moved beyond what Achcar discussed just one year ago. It’s hard now to understand how anyone could have promoted Sabahy as a “leftist” and “socialist” as Achcar did. This shows the importance of building independent workers’ organizations with a program opposed to both the Islamists and the bourgeois liberals. The liberals have succeeded with their idea of how to deal with the Islamists – bring back the military. Now it’s the workers’ turn to have their say on how to deal with political Islam as well as with the military deep state. Instead of looking for what kind of bourgeois trend to hook up with – neo-liberal, state capitalist, Nasserite, etc. – working class activists should concentrate on building a movement that stands opposed to these trends. The confusion among liberals can actually work to the advantage of working class activists if they use it to promote the need for a trend based on the workers themselves.


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