Marx, Bonaparte and the Egyptian Revolution: Another Friday in Tahrir Square

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Demonstrators hold up an Egyptian flag as thousands crowd Cairo's Tahrir square on July 8, 2011. (Photo: Mohamed Hossam / AFP / Getty Images)

Karl Marx’s 19th century political journalism holds up a lot better than do his general theories of capitalism, socialism and history. Indeed, the father of modern communism may well have nailed the nature of the 2011 revolution in Egypt in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, a tract written by the German in 1852. And Friday’s protest by tens of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square suggests that many Egyptians see their revolution as threatened by the very same dangers Marx had described events in France some 159 years ago.

Written just weeks after a military coup in France led by Louis, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, the piece is best remembered for its inimitable lead — the one about the great tragedies of history being repeated as farces — and for the profound observation that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

But  Friday’s protest in Tahrir Square — a ritual of the “revolution” directed now at those who claim to rule in its name — brings to mind Marx’s concept of “Bonapartism”, which seems to aptly define the regime that has replaced the ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Bonapartism referred to a situation where a revolutionary movement has generated a crisis but has failed to claim power for itself, and instead sees counter-revolutionary military officers seize control, speaking the language of a revolution even as they aim to defuse, disperse and suppress it. 

Friday’s protests were originally to have focused on the call for a new constitution to precede elections — a matter that divides some of the key revolutionary constituencies, with the liberals favoring it but the Islamists opposed —  but instead became a wider expression of popular anger at the interim military leadership’s failure to deliver on the promise of Egypt’s unfinished revolution.

It was the military — the foundation of the regime, which preceded Mubarak — that forced the president to yield to the demands of the street and step down. An institution dedicated to stability recognized that this had become impossible while Mubarak remained in power. Instead, the military’s own leadership  stepped in to replace him, putting executive authority in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and promising to heed the demands of the street, even as it applied the brakes on any deeper revolutionary  change.

The generals agreed to hold elections, and to prosecute those deemed guilty of corruption in the old order. But at the same time, it has sought to outlaw strikes and prevent protests, and continues to detain and harass demonstrators and activists. More than 5,000 democracy activists  have been detained by the security forces since Mubarak’s resignation. Detainees are still tortured in military-ruled Egypt according to human rights monitors, and women protestors were recently subjected to brutal and humiliating ‘virginity tests‘.

Unpopular arms of the state security services have been renamed, rather than entirely disbanded, the military leadership mindful of popular anger against those who killed and tortured with impunity, yet apparently reluctant to act aggressively against them. The interim regime’s failure to effectively prosecute officers of the security forces responsible for killing demonstrators and dissidents — perhaps out of  a reluctance to establish a principle of public accountability for men in uniform following orders to act against their own people — has become a flashpoint. It was the interim regime’s failure to deliver justice for the victims of repression that  triggered last week’s turmoil in Tahrir Square, where the police attacked unarmed demonstrators with all the vigor they had applied during the initial protests against Mubarak.  And the interim military leadership blamed the protestors for the violence.

It was military rule that put Mubarak in power in the first place, and the military was prepared to sacrifice him in exchange for the stability demanded by its institutional interests. The generals appear to be feeling their way to a new political equilibrium able to ensure social stability, and its formula for getting there will certainly include elections. But, not unlike Pakistan’s military, Egypt’s armed forces have their own vital interests, ranging from their dependence on an annual U.S. stipend and a resultant need (as well because of its own relative weakness) to keep the peace with Israel, to a need to stabilize Egypt and reverse the precipitous economic decline. (Hence the ban on strikes.)

The gap between the symbolic and substantial in the generals’ regime was clear in their recent decisions on Gaza. In response to a popular pressure to end support for the Israeli-U.S. blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory that most Egyptians see as a matter of national shame, the military announced it would open the Rafah border crossing with the territory. But if that sounded like a break with Mubarak’s enthusiastic collaboration in the collective punishment of Gazans, the reality, as analyst Helena Cobban points out, was different: Egypt still bans all trade through Rafah, and restricts the movement of people out of Gaza to less than 300 a day, conforming with lists provided by the Israelis and excluding men of military age. A lifting of the siege? Or a relatively empty Bonapartist gesture to appease popular anger?

Cobban also points out that the generals last month removed the foreign minister they had appointed, Nabil el-Araby, who had promised a break with Mubarak’s Israel-friendly polices towards the Palestinians. El-Araby was moved off to head the Arab League, in an act of irony given that  Mubarak had done the same to his own former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who was also deemed too popular in no small part due to his more confrontational attitude towards Israel.

The protests of recent weeks, and the massive event scheduled for Friday, however, reflect a growing sense among the broad sectors of society that came together to force Mubarak out, that the military regime that replaced him is unlikely to deliver their goals of its own volition.

Having been initially content to “outsource” their revolution to the military, many Egyptians are now once again seeking to put their destiny in their own hands. That, of course, would be just fine with Mr. Marx. After all, he believed that no historical outcome is ever predetermined; it’s always settled by the balance of strength between contending forces in struggle. Many of the Egyptians out on the streets on Friday may be drawing the same conclusion.

4 comments
MelWatergirl
MelWatergirl

@evanchill I wonder as I have my nice cold organic beer..are you safe? In danger? You can be uncomfortable to read bc I think of your safety

tomkutsch
tomkutsch

@TonyKaron analysis that certainly holds up today. Bonapartism through and through....