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Why Egypt's Progressives Win

While Mubarak's social base of power appears to have been destroyed, an alliance of nationalist businessmen and the military is trying to come to power. However, they are opposed by a large alliance of working class, small business and women organisations and interests who are leading the massive popular revolt in Egypt for the past fortnight. An analysis of the social base of the various political actors in Egypt today shows why progressive forces are on the ascendant.


7 February – the biggest mobilisation so

Why Egypt’s Progressives Win

far in this uprising. Commentators focusing on the Brothers had completely missed the real news of the past two days. The Paul Amar ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)

While Mubarak’s social base of power appears to have been destroyed, an alliance of nationalist businessmen and the military is trying to come to power. However, they are opposed by a large alliance of working class, small business and women organisations and interests who are leading the massive popular revolt in Egypt for the past fortnight. An analysis of the social base of the various political actors in Egypt today shows why progressive forces are on the ascendant.

Paul Amar ( teaches at the Global and International Studies Program, University of California, Santa Barbara, United States.

n 6 February 2011, Egypt’s hastily appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman invited the old guard, or what we could call the businessmen’s wing of the Muslim Brothers, to a stately meeting in the polished rosewood cabinet chamber of Mubarak’s presidential palace. The aim of their tea party was to discuss some kind of accord that would end the national uprising and restore “normalcy”. When news of the meeting broke, expressions of delight and terror tore through the blogosphere. Was the nightmare scenario of both the political left and right about to be realised? Would the United States/Israel surrogate, Suleiman, merge his militarypolice apparatus with the more conservative branch of the old Islamist social movement? Hearing the news, Iran’s Supreme Leader sent his congratulations. And America’s Glen Beck and John McCain ranted with glee about world wars and the inevitable rise of the Cosmic Caliphate.

On that same day, an unnamed White House official told the Associated Press that any “academic type” who did not focus on the Muslim Brothers and see them as the principal actor in this drama “was full of sh*t”. The White House seemed to believe that Suleiman, chief of Egypt’s intelligence services, was the kind of person they could depend on.

In reality, the Suleiman-Brothers tea party turned out to be nothing more than another stunt staged by the government- operated Nile TV News. Images of the Suleiman-Brothers tête-à-tête were broadcast at a time when Suleiman’s legitimacy was appearing increasingly shaky within Egypt, and when this particular sub-group of the Brothers, who represent only one fraction of one faction of the opposition, was trying to leverage an unlikely comeback. As reporters obsessed over which Brother was sitting with Suleiman, they continued to ignore or misapprehend the continuing growing power of the movements that had started this uprising.

Proving Nile TV and the pessimists wrong, 1.5 million people turned out on leadership had been savaged from within. In a desperate attempt to salvage his phantom authority, Mubarak had tossed his son Gamal and a whole class of USlinked businessmen to the lions, forcing them to resign and freezing their assets. And at the same time, Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the Muslim Brothers’ youth and women’s wings had split off from the main Brothers’ organisation to join the leftist “6 April” movement. The men sitting around Suleiman’s table were left without much of a movement behind them.

Bands of Brothers

The Society of Muslim Brothers is not a marginal force in Egypt. They are very well-organised and can be credited with providing health, education, legal aid and disaster relief to citizens ignored or neglected by the State. But they are not Egypt’s equivalent of Hizbollah or Hamas. As Mona El-Ghobashy has described, in the 1990s, they made a definite break, transforming their secretive, hierarchical, shari’a-focused form into a well-organised political party, officially banned but occasionally tolerated. In the past two decades they have made significant inroads into parliament via alliances with other parties and by running independent candidates. The Brothers now fully support political pluralism, women’s participation in politics, and accept the role of Christians and communists as full citizens.

However, with the rise of other competing labour, liberal and human-rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the “new old guard” of the Brothers (the ones that emerged in the 1980s) have retained a primary focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. They feel this distinguishes them from other parties, a fact they confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative Muhammad Badeea as their leader in 2010. This leaning can thus bring the “new old guard” more in line with the moralistic paternalism of Mubarak’s government and set them against the trajectory of new youth, women’s and labour

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movements. This leads to new possibilities of splits within the Brothers, as youth and women’s wings feel drawn towards the “6 April” coalition.

The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the “new old guard” is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organisation. The “new old guard” of the Brothers’ business wing has started to look like a group of retired Shriners (a secret fraternal organisation linked to the Freemasons), except that in North Africa, Shriners have stopped wearing fezes.

In the past decade this particular wing of the Brothers has been partially co-opted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, the Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments, and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and uppermiddle class establishment for years.

Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last decade and more, Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trashrecycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shia minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.

In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicisation of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brothers’ activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.

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Military as a Middle Class

At one time, the Muslim Brothers represented frustrated, marginalised elements of the middle class. But that story is so 1986! Now there are a wide range of secular (but not anti-religious) groupings that represent emergent economic patterns within the country. Moreover, these groups are swept up in a whirlwind of political-economic energies coming from new or renewed world influences and investors – Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Israel, Dubai, China, Turkey and Brazil, as well as the return of remittance flows into the country as Egyptian professionals got swept up in the Emirates’ building and development boom.

In the context of this new multidimensional globalisation, in which east/west divides and post-colonial patterns are radically remade, the Egyptian military, a misunderstood economic actor, has come to play a very interesting economic role. The military’s economic interests are split in interesting ways. Since the military has been prevented by the Camp David treaty from making war, it has instead used its sovereignty over huge tracts of desert and coastal property to develop shopping malls, gated cities and beach resorts, catering to rich and modest Egyptians, local and international consumers and tourists.

Their position vis-à-vis the uprising is thus complicated. They hated the rapacious capitalists around Gamal Mubarak, who sold off national lands, assets and resources to US and European corporations. But the military also wants tourists, shoppers and investors to consume in their multi-billion dollar resorts and venues. The military identifies very strongly with representing and protecting “the people”, but also wants the people to go home and stop scaring away the tourists. The military will continue to mobilise this in-between position in interesting ways in the coming years.

Suleiman’s intelligence services (mukhabarat) are nominally part of the military, but are institutionally quite separate. Intelligence is dependent on foreign patrons (Israel and the US primarily). But the actual army and air force are quite grounded in the economic and social interests of national territory. The army’s role in countering Suleiman’s lust for repression was crucial to saving the momentum of this uprising. On 4 February, the day of the

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most terrifying police/thug brutality in Tahrir Square, many commentators noted that the military was trying to stop the thug attacks but was not being very forceful or aggressive. Was this a sign that the military really wanted the protesters to be crushed? Since then we have learned that the military in the Square was not provisioned with bullets. The military were trying as best they could to battle the police/ thugs, but Suleiman had taken away their bullets for fear the military would side with the protesters and use the ammunition to overthrow him.

Bullets or no, the military displaced the police, who had stripped of their uniforms and regressed into bands of thugs. Security in Cairo was being taken over by the military. In public spaces and residential quarters we witnessed the return of a 21st century version of futuwwa groups. As Wilson Jacob has described, in the 19th century futuwwa were icons of working class national identity and community solidarity in Egypt. Futuwwa were organised groups of young men that defended craft guilds and working class neighbourhoods in Cairo. But the futuwwa reborn on 1 February 2011 are called Peoples’ Committees and include men of all classes and ages, and a few women with butcher knives, too. They stake out every street corner, vigilant for police and state-funded thugs who would try to arrest, intimidate or loot residents.

Given the threat of sexualised physical violence from Mubarak’s police/thugs, there is a gender dimension to this reimagining and redeployment of security and military power during this uprising. In the first days of the uprising we saw huge numbers of women participating in the revolt. Then the police/thugs started targeting women in particularly horrifying ways

– molesting, detaining, raping. When the police were driven back and the military and the futuwwa groups took over, they insisted that “protecting” the people from thugs involved filtering women and children out of public spaces, including Tahrir Square. But women in this revolt have insisted that they are not victims that need protection, they are the leading core of this movement. On 7 February, women’s groups, including the leftist 6 April national labour movement, anti-harassment, civil rights groups, and the women’s wing of the


Brothers re-emerged in force in downtown Cairo by the hundreds of thousands.

Gutting Gamal’s Globalisation

On 28 January the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling NDP burned down, and with it, Mubarak’s substantive authority was turned to ashes. The rising military and national-capital interests then spat on those ashes on 5 February. On that day, they ensured that Gamal Mubarak would resign as head of the political office of the NDP. In his place, Hosam Badrawy was named the new secretary-general of the NDP. The choice of Badrawy reflects the direction the winds are blowing now. Badrawy holds the dubious honour of being the man who founded Egypt’s first private-sector health provider in 1989. All Egyptians are constitutionally guaranteed access to free and universal healthcare. But Mubarak, under orders from the International Monetary Fund, made draconian cuts to the public health service beginning in the 1980s. Badrawy has championed the privatisation of healthcare, and has created a national private healthcare industry with significant capital and legitimacy. This industry is threatened by global competition and describes itself in nationalistic, paternalistic tones. Gamal Mubarak serving as a vehicle for foreign investment posed a threat to national businessmen like Badrawy. Badrawy also served in the past as the director of the NDP’s human rights organisation, a particularly contradictory job to hold during a time of mass repression and torture.

Naguib Sawiris, the self-proposed chair of the “Transitional Council of Wise Men”, is similar in some ways to Badrawy. Sawiris is a successful nationalist businessman. Sawiris heads the largest private-sector company in Egypt, Orascom. This firm has built railways, beach resorts, gated-cities, highways, telecom systems, wind farms, condos and hotels. He is a major financier in the Arab and Mediterranean regions. He is also the banner carrier for Egypt’s developmentalist nationalists. On 4 February Sawiris released a statement proposing a council of wise men who would oversee Suleiman and the police, and who would lead Egypt through the transition. The proposed council would be a so-called “neutral, technocratic” body that would include Sawiris, along with a couple of nonideological members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s businessmen’s wing, some strategicstudies experts, and a Nobel Prize winner.

Would this Nobel winner be Mohammed ElBaradei, the peace laureate and opposition leader? No. They had found an Egyptian laureate in organic chemistry.

Women, Micro-Businesses and Workers

We can now understand why we witnessed the emergence, in the first week of February 2011, of a coalition around nationalist businessmen in alliance with the military

– a military which also acts like nationalist middle-class businessmen. This group ejected the “crony globalisers” and “barons of privatisation” surrounding Gamal Mubarak. Would this group then cement their hold on power, to rule the country with Suleiman as their hammer? No. Other massive social forces were also at work. They are well organised. Legitimacy, organisation, new vision and economic power are in their hands. The new nationalist business-military bloc cannot develop the country without their participation and mobilisation.

It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brothers or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces – (i) the movement for

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workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt, especially in the last two years, and (ii) the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilised every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women (of all ages) and youth (of all genders). There are structural reasons for this.

First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalisation and poverty, it is from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has re-emerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt’s workers are mobilised because new factories are being built, in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment.

Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up; and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the central Asian Republics and the Gulf Emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate, and into manufacturing piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure, etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or newly built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone.

In the Persian Gulf, developers use expatriate labour but Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-workshops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large workingclass apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you will see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuit boards, for sale in Europe, north Africa and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the “6 April” movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organising and mobilising process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz circulating a passionate Youtube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on 24 January

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2011. Mahfouz, a political organiser with a masters in business administration from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.


Egypt’s micro-businesses have been politicised and mobilised in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working class and lower middle class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted towards women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill.

Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualised brutalisation of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organised force opposed to the police-state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. The economic interests of this large class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khaled Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded an ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.

Police demanding bribes, harassing small micro-businesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centres, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small

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gyms constitute the landscape of microenterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. The so-called “Facebook revolution” is not about people mobilising in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilising the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

The Egyptian Difference

In the case of the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, the “bazaaris of Tehran” (the medium-sized merchants and shop owners) ended up serving as the crucial “swing vote,” moving the Iranian Revolution from left to right, from a socialistic uprising towards the founding of an Islamic republic. In the case of Egypt, the social and political force of women and youth micro-entrepreneurs will lead history in the opposite direction. These groups have a highly developed, if complex, view of the moral posturing of some Islamists, and they have a very clear socio-economic agenda, which appeals to the dynamic youth wing of the Brothers. The progressive groups have a linked network of enterprises, factories, identities and passions. They would go to any length to prevent the re-emergence of police brutality and moralistic hypocrisy that have ruled them for the past generation. The women and youth behind the micro-businesses, and the workers in the new Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, Gulf, and Egyptian-financed factories seem to be united. And they grow more so each day.

Micro-entrepreneurs, new workers groups, and massive anti-police brutality organisations obviously do not share the same class position as Sawiris and Badrawy and the rich men in the “Council of the Wise”. Nevertheless, there are significant overlaps and affinities between the interests and politics of nationalist developmentoriented groups, the newly entrepreneurial military, and, vitally, the well-organised youth and women’s social movements. This confluence of social, historical and economic dynamics will assure that this uprising does not get reduced to a photo opportunity for Suleiman and a few of his cronies.

A Cheshire cat is smiling down on Suleiman’s tea party.

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