A review of Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Saqi, 2016), £12.99
Gilbert Achcar is a Lebanese socialist living in Europe and a prominent commentator on Middle Eastern politics. His recent book Morbid Symptoms is meant to constitute a follow-up to his earlier analysis of the Arab revolutions, The People Want. In Morbid Symptoms Achcar aims to provide an analysis of the counter-revolutionary wave that is sweeping the region five years on from the eruption of the Arab uprisings, with a focus on Syria and Egypt.
Central to Achcar’s understanding of the Middle East today is his thesis of the two sides to the counter-revolution, which he depicts as a struggle between two antagonistic poles: the “ancien regimes” embodied by the state institutions in their various forms, and the “Islamist fundamentalists”, a category that sweeps the full spectrum of political Islam, from mass organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood to the various armed jihadist groups. The Islamists are described as an inherently reactionary opposition to the established regimes, with whom they share the same hostility towards the aspirations expressed by millions during the Arab uprisings. Short of radical social change, Achcar argues, the region will not stabilise anytime soon; to bring about this change will require strong “progressive” leaderships that can constitute an independent pole at equal distances from both the state and the Islamists. However, Achcar says that progressives should be open to “tactical alliances” of a temporary nature with one or other of the two poles of the counter-revolution against the other: with the state against the Islamists, or vice versa.1
This book will prove of much use to anyone seeking to understand how the Arab uprisings’ initial hopes and victories have made way for chaos, war and repression. Fundamentally, events are proving that Achcar is right to argue that the region will need radical change to its social structure if it is to know stability. Certain sections of the book in particular are very informative, like the one depicting the historic relationships between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and various jihadist groups. Achcar also provides a good account of the slide by Hamdeen Sabbahi, a prominent figure of the traditional Egyptian left, towards ultimate collusion with the military coup of 30 June 2013.
However, there are a number of problems with Achcar’s “two poles” thesis of the counter-revolution, not least with its practical implications for the left. This review will argue that the state is the only force capable of driving the counter-revolution in the region. The Islamists do not constitute a coherent counter-revolutionary pole, and mass organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood are subject to tensions arising from their contradictory class composition. Their collusion with the core of the state during the early stages of the Egyptian Revolution, like that of the liberals and the traditional left at a later time, can be traced to their reformist agenda rather than to an inherently anti-democratic, counter-revolutionary nature. The revolutionary left’s strategy should include carefully thought out, tactical united front alliances with the various sections of the reformist opposition—and this necessarily includes some of the Islamists—without compromising on its core values; chief of which is the ultimate necessity to overthrow the existing state in the process of bringing about revolutionary change from below. From that point of view, any collusion with the state, however temporary, should remain out of the question.
In his analysis of the war in Syria, which he describes as a “clash of barbarisms”, Achcar states that “the Assad regime’s offensive, and its resort to systematic, bloody repression on an increasingly horrific scale, engaged Syria inexorably on the path of a civil war”.2 The dynamics of this war ensured that:
The new progressive forces that emerged in Syria with the beginning of the uprising in 2011 have been suffocated… There are narrow limits indeed to what can be achieved through an improvised network facilitated by the use of social media—especially in a dictatorial country such as Syria, or any other Arab country for that matter. The Syrian calamity is simply one more tragic demonstration of the cost of lacking an effective organisation with a sound strategic vision for radical political change.3
Achcar doesn’t venture much deeper into the subject of revolutionary organisation, and focuses on analysing the dynamics of the war instead. He insists that the military weakness of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has allowed Assad’s armed forces to carry on their destruction of the country unhindered, and opened the door to the emergence and growth of various jihadist groups, funded by states and private donors from the Gulf in order to “exorcise the democratic potential of the regional uprising and turning it into a sectarian issue”4 at the FSA’s expense.
Achcar tackles an often overlooked issue at length: the regime’s history of collusion with jihadists since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Assad regime had an interest in destabilising the US occupation of Iraq. It therefore tolerated and fostered jihadist groups and individuals who waged war in Iraq. After the uprising shook Syria itself, Assad released hundreds of these jihadists who he had imprisoned on their return from Iraq.5
A damning element is the regime’s pragmatic attitude towards ISIS, where the occasional battle punctuates long periods of laissez-faire and even collaboration. Achcar hits the nail on the head when he sums this up by affirming that “the Syrian regime will fight ISIS only if, and to the extent to which, it believes that it enhances its position in the fight against its main enemy: the mainstream opposition backed by Turkey and Gulf monarchies”.6
Key to Achcar’s understanding of how Syria has descended into war is the fact that the United States never provided the armed opposition that emerged soon after the onset of the uprising—mainly the Free Syrian Army—with the weapons it needed to protect itself and the population from an onslaught from the regime that mainly came from the air. He talks of a “symmetry between George W Bush and Barack Obama—their production of similar results in opposite ways: military aggression [against Iraq] in Bush’s case and denial of assistance [to the Syrian people against Assad] in Obama’s”7 that resulted in not only the destruction of Iraq and Syria, but also the emergence and development of what ended up as ISIS. In long drawn-out sections Achcar seeks to map out what he sees as the guilty faltering of the US administration when it came to intervention, before concluding that, ultimately, both the US and Russia did not want the Assad regime to fall.
The Obama administration’s lack of a more direct intervention in the Syrian war, far from being driven by its obvious contempt for Syrian lives—this should be considered a given—is a symptom of the failure of the bravado adventurism of the previous neoconservative governments. As Alex Callinicos puts it:
The Middle East today is shaped above all by the failure of this vainglorious [neocon] project and by the Arab revolutions and the reactionary attempts to crush them. The Obama administration is profoundly conscious of this. This doesn’t mean that it won’t inflict more evils on the region, or collude in them (for example through its support for Israel), but…its current aims are primarily defensive.8
Achcar’s thinly veiled reproach to the US administration for “the abandonment of the Syrian people” can be traced to his view of the Syrian regime as “patrimonial” in nature (an analysis initially developed in The People Want) meaning that “ruling families ‘own’ the state to all intents and purposes; they will fight to the last soldier in their praetorian guard in order to preserve their reign”.9 This explains that, “in Libya and Syria, the repression of the uprisings was much bloodier from the outset…a fact directly related to the patrimonial character of both regimes and their accurate conviction that any substantial compromise—any breach in their armour—would spell their end”.10 This is in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, where Achcar says that “there had been no determined attempt at drowning the uprising in a bloodbath when it had begun to unfold”.11
While it is true that the Syrian regime, and particularly the elite sections of its armed forces, exhibits an obvious interlocking between the Assad family and the state institutions, this does not constitute enough evidence to affirm that the country’s collapse into civil war was inevitable from the onset of the uprising. An important variable in this equation is overlooked by Achcar: the nature of the uprising itself. While the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt quickly took hold of the major cities, the Syrian uprising’s spark was lit in a remote town, Deraa, and as a general pattern moved from the countryside to the large cities on a much slower timescale than its Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. This dispersed and uneven nature—both temporal and geographical—of the early phases of the uprising allowed the regime’s repression to escalate to the point of igniting a military civil war before the uprising had had a chance to strike any significant blow to the regime. 12
Here the role of the organised working class, instrumental in overthrowing Tunisia’s president Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, was remarkable by its absence. As Jonathan Maunder noted in 2012, the Syrian working class had the objective potential to use its collective power to overthrow the regime but also to address the deep-rooted social and economic issues that caused the uprising in the first place.13
Why was the Syrian uprising unable to fulfil its objective potential? In addition to the regime’s barbaric repression, it is likely due to an intersection of subjective factors, like the lack of organisational experience of the working class, students and opposition parties. The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, in comparison, were able to rely on such experience. There is no space here to provide a lengthy and satisfactory analysis of this issue, but to reduce the failure of the uprising to the particular nature of the regime risks throwing us down a pessimistic and fatalistic road.
The “progressivism” of the PYD—a viable alternative?
Achcar sees the success of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wings the YPG and YPJ in gaining control of areas of north eastern Syria (Rojava) as evidence of “the huge difference made by the existence of effective progressive organisations” which represent, “from a social and gender-relations perspective, the most progressive experience to emerge to this day in any of the six countries that were the scenes of the 2011 uprisings”.14 While distancing himself from the idealisation of this experience that many in the Western left indulged in, Achcar regrets that the Rojava experience did not inspire the Syrian uprising or the Arab left.
While it is difficult to deny that the PYD rule in Kurdish areas is rather more democratic than the murderous tyranny of Assad and ISIS, it also exhibits serious limitations that should not be overlooked. The fundamental characteristic of the Arab uprisings has been the active intervention of millions of ordinary people on the political field. By contrast, PYD rule in Rojava appears to be essentially constituted of political institutions imposed by the armed group from above, with little engagement from the local population.15 This isn’t very surprising given that the PYD has stepped in as an armed group to fill the void created by the Assad regime’s abandonment of the region for military and political considerations; thus existing state power was not overthrown through the mass involvement of ordinary people. There is more evidence of the PYD accommodating the existing social relations than challenging them;16 finally, the PYD is no stranger to repression of political opponents and activists.17
Achcar recognises that the end of hostilities is the prerequisite for any sort of resurgence of the Syrian popular movement. Even a fragile transition “that would fall very far short of fulfilling the aspirations of those who initiated the uprising in 2011…might start to recreate the conditions under which a progressive alternative…might re-emerge”.18 He sees that this alternative is symbolised in the democratic experience of 2011-12 and the exiled young activists. He also bets that many of the current jihadist groups and fighters will turn away from jihadism “once it stops providing a way of making a living”.
One may also add to Achcar’s prognosis that a crucial factor in determining the destiny of post-war Syria will be the capacity of the working class to organise independently of state interference; while the war, the destruction and economic collapse have fragmented it geographically, there is little doubt that the major reconstruction drive that Syria now needs, if realised, will grant its recomposed working class real objective power. Moreover, the sectarian taint taken by both the counter-revolution and the regional imperialist interventions in Syria, and consequently by the civil war, will no doubt loom over the country for generations to come. Working class struggle, which reveals society’s real cleavages along class rather than religious lines, can act as a powerful antidote to sectarianism on the consciousness of workers and the poor. In neighbouring Lebanon, for instance, struggles by electricity bill collectors and teachers in recent years have crossed the sectarian divide that is deeply entrenched and institutionalised at both state and trade union levels; although those strikes were ultimately defeated, they have shown that economic struggles of the working class laid the political potential for ordinary people to defeat sectarian divisions.19
Achcar sees the course of events in Egypt since 25 January 2011 as an illustration of a triangular conflict between the camp of the revolution and two poles of the counter-revolution: on the one hand, the “ancien regime”, as embodied in the state institutions—primarily the armed forces and the judiciary—and the “feloul”, the remnants of the Mubarak era, and on the other the “Islamic fundamentalists”, as represented by the Salafis and more importantly the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are “equally antithetical to the emancipatory aspirations of the Arab Spring”.20
Achcar argues that “as it officially joined the mass mobilisation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 28 January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood offered its counter-revolutionary services to the Egyptian army”.21 But this view does not take into account the decisive role that rank and file members of the Brotherhood played from the very first hours of the 25 January mobilisation, beating back the police and securing Tahrir square at the cost of hundreds of victims. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership felt compelled to join the protests “officially” by pressure from its rank and file must not be understated:
The leadership of the MB started to support the revolutionary movement when it was clear that it was succeeding… But the youth were there from day one. That caused a split within the Brotherhood that contributed to the development of autonomous political activism among the youth as well as the resignation of veteran figures such as Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh.22
Likewise, the Brotherhood’s collaboration with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after Mubarak was ousted on 11 February 2011 is seen by Achcar as an instance of collaboration between both wings of the counter-revolution.23 But the attitude of Hamdeen Sabbahi—the most prominent figure in what Achcar calls the “progressive left”—towards SCAF does not differ much from that which the Muslim Brotherhood adopted in 2011. Indeed, Achcar argues that both Sabbahi and the MB have attempted to give the military some revolutionary credentials, albeit for very different reasons: “Opportunistic cowardice and a strategic wager on their ability to share power with the military” in the case of the Brotherhood became only a display of “naïve belief in the power of Nasserite nostalgia among the military”24 when it came to Sabbahi.
Later in the same chapter Achcar reiterates this when he critically reports that Sabbahi regretted “that the revolutionary camp had not competed with the Brothers in trying to seduce the SCAF!”25 Thus both Sabbahi and the Muslim Brotherhood behaved as institutional reformists, in the sense that they vowed to bring about change via democratically sanctioned reforms to the existing state institutions. At the height of the political crisis unleashed by the 25 January revolution, this fundamental characteristic was expressed in the readiness of both Sabbahi and the MB to compromise and collaborate with the core of the existing state as represented by SCAF. In that sense, both are objectively guilty of opportunism; the reason SCAF ended up choosing the Brotherhood over Sabbahi as its preferred partner at that particular moment of revolutionary turmoil is best explained by Sabbahi himself, who—although he exaggerates the Brotherhood’s top-down organisational coherence—makes a good point when he states that SCAF “found a ready-to-use organisation highly disciplined, implementing compliance and obedience, called ‘the Brothers’, who offered their services in supporting it”.26
But even after the Brotherhood’s leadership had betrayed the revolution and sided with SCAF, its youth were still out on the streets, defying their leadership’s instructions and demonstrating alongside left activists against SCAF itself. With the nearing of the first post-25 January parliamentary elections, debates raged among many of the Brotherhood’s rank and file on how to best protect and consolidate the revolution: “In a sense, the Brotherhood youth’s dilemma is a reflection of a broader debate within the protest movement pitting direct action against the electoral process”.27
Far from being a monolithic, impregnable fortress of reaction, the Brotherhood has historically attracted supporters from antagonistic social classes. As Sameh Naguib argued in a 2006 pamphlet entitled The Muslim Brotherhood: A Socialist View, the Brotherhood’s discourses attracted “not only the modern middle class that constituted the backbone of the organisation, but also sections of the rich who were attracted by the conservative religious slogans. Sections of the poor also rallied to the organisation, as they were convinced that the Brotherhood with its vague slogans around social justice, the fight against oppression and corruption would give them a way out of their suffering”.28
Five years and a revolution later this contradiction was expressed in the fact that, while some leading members of the Brotherhood were found among wealthy businessmen like Khairat al-Shater, the organisation’s electoral pull also worked on the poor who were thirsty for social justice: “‘People are voting for the Islamists precisely because they promise economic justice and an end to marginalisation,’ said veteran leftist activist Gamal Beltagi, who works as an engineer in the port of Damietta”.29
The Brotherhood in office
In his description of Mohamed Mursi’s short-lived mandate (from his election as president in June 2012 to his removal by the military a year later) Achcar says that “Mursi’s tenure, lacking the lion’s force, miserably failed in achieving consent by want of the fox’s talent”.30 Indeed, while Mursi had won the elections, he had no control over the armed forces, where real power lay. Moreover, beyond his own supporters, he did not attempt to accommodate the wide spectrum of voters who elected him.
Instead of fulfilling the aspirations of the 25 January revolution that had brought it to power, the Brotherhood went on trying to assert “to Egypt’s core state apparatuses and the bulk of its capitalist class, state bourgeoisie included, that it was essentially aiming at acting in symbiosis with them, and replacing only that part of the political component of the power elite that had been discarded by the uprising”.31
Achcar highlights Mursi’s commitment to neoliberalism in continuity with the previous governments’ policies, including seeking an IMF loan and pledging to implement the cuts and tax hikes that come along with it—although he’s had to backpedal on the latter in the face of a huge popular outcry.32 Highlighted too is Mursi’s use of the police forces against striking workers—many of whom had elected him. According to figures quoted by Achcar, workers’ protests had soared from 1,400 in 2011 to 1,969 in 2012 and 1,972 in the first half of 2013 alone.33 In addition to the remnants of the old regime, Mursi had therefore managed within a few months to turn large sections of the population against him—particularly those who had taken part in the January revolution and expected real change from the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history.
The military, who had been seen as sitting on the sidelines since Mursi’s assumption of power, were tracking their prey: “The blatant failure of Mursi and the MB to restore ‘law and order’ and reboot the economy…along with their incredibly short-sighted and crass attempt to get their hand on one segment of the state after another, in a headlong rush against the dwindling tide of their popularity—all this led the SCAF to lose patience”.34
The National Salvation Front, Tamarod and the run-up to 30 June 2013
Achcar studies two important political forces that emerged in response to Mursi’s catastrophic presidency: the National Salvation Front (NSF) and the Tamarod (Arabic for “rebellion”) movement.
The NSF was founded in November 2012 as a coalition of the traditional left and liberal parties with “people who had collaborated with the old regime”.35 A key figure in it was Hamdeen Sabbahi, who had founded the Popular Current a few months before, and who Achcar describes as a “proponent of an updated, democratic version of Nasserism” which he sees as “the main form of popular left consciousness in Egypt”.36 Although Sabbahi denounced the class continuity between Mursi and the Mubarak regime, most of his NSF allies were tied to that very class continuity and did not represent the aspirations of 25 January.37
Tamarod was founded in April 2013 by Nasserist activists who had taken part in the January revolution. It essentially began as a nationwide petition calling for a motion of no confidence in Mursi and early presidential elections. A broad spectrum of political organisations and individual activists declared their support for the Tamarod campaign; however, there was little they could do beyond distributing and signing the petition; the hundreds of thousands who took part in the campaign did not have much leverage over the political direction it was steered into by its founders. Indeed, as the campaign gathered steam, “the participation…of former members of the ruling party that had been dissolved in 2011 became increasingly noticeable, as was the involvement of security services”.38
So the organised opposition to Mursi, far from representing a continuity with the 25 January uprising, directly involved the hard core of the state and the Mubarak regime: “The NSF and Tamarod openly welcomed the support of prominent representatives of the feloul, including Ahmad Shafiq himself, as long as they had not been convicted or prosecuted in relation to their role under Mubarak”.39
The porous and opportunistic nature of this latter “reservation” is compounded by the fact that the judiciary, like most of Egypt’s repressive state apparatuses, had remained largely intact after the January revolution.
30 June 2013, the army’s coup and the Raba’a massacres
A gigantic anti-Mursi mobilisation on 30 June 2013 was followed by a coup carried out by the army on 3 July. Achcar sees 30 June as the climax of the second wave of the Egyptian Revolution (after 25 January), which was hijacked by the military on 3 July as “both the left and the progressive liberal opposition sang the praises of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the armed forces, instead of warning against any temptation towards the establishment of military rule in any form”.40
While he acknowledges that “the very backbone of the old regime, the army, played a pivotal role in the success of the anti-Mursi mobilisation on 30 June 2013”, Achcar probably underestimates the extent to which the run-up to 30 June and the mobilisation itself were dominated by counter-revolutionary politics. The ideals expressed on 25 January 2011 were nowhere to be found on 30 June 2013: bread, freedom and social justice had been replaced by “order” and the “defence of the judiciary”.41
A Revolutionary Socialist activist gives a revealing testimony of 30 June 2013:
While the Revolutionary Socialists distributed their leaflets calling on “the masses” to occupy the squares and inciting the working class to declare a general strike, the highest, nay the only voice to be heard on the streets and on Tahrir was that of the air horns, the “Sisi, Sisi” chants and the calls for the army to intervene. For the very first time, we were not able to sell The Socialist [the RS journal] on Tahrir square, and had to leave the square… The comrades who were selling our magazine, whose headline warned against an army intervention, were being harassed everywhere and threatened with assault. The high ranking police officers, dressed in their shiny white uniforms, were being carried on protesters’ shoulders into the square—“The army, the people and the police are one hand”.42
Does this mean that the “revolutionary” participants on 30 June 2013, Sabbahi (as part of the NSF) and the Tamarod founders included, were consciously taking part in a counter-revolution? Did they set out on that day with the firm idea of reversing the historical process unleashed on 25 January 2011? The answer is no.
What led these “progressive” representatives of the traditional left to play the shameful role of the flag-bearers of the counter-revolution, and later to cheer its horrific massacres, was partly the Nasserist legacy—which Achcar describes at length in a section titled “Nasserist Illusions”—best embodied in the slogan “The army and the people are one hand”. Another crucial aspect that Achcar all but overlooks lies in the Egyptian left’s historical enmity towards political Islam. As Naguib explains:
[the Egyptian left] considered the Muslim Brotherhood an obscurantist, reactionary movement that opposes modernity and democracy. The MB was thus seen as the enemy of the masses and a direct servant of the most reactionary, right-wing sections of the bourgeoisie. The practical conclusion to that analysis was the necessity to fight this organisation and prevent it from reaching power, even at the cost of seeking an alliance with the ruling bourgeoisie.43
This combination of “Nasserist illusions”—in many aspects a local variant of social democratic illusions in the state—and an irrational understanding of what the Muslim Brotherhood represented reached its paroxysm on Tafweed (“mandating”) day on 26 July 2013, when the NSF and Tamarod joined a huge demonstration, comparable in scale to that of 30 June according to Achcar, that had been organised at the express demand of el-Sisi in order for “the people to give the army a mandate to fight terrorism”. This demonstration directly translated the same night into the killing of 95 Mursi supporters by the police,44 in what proved to be nothing but a dress rehearsal for the massacre committed by the armed forces against a large MB gathering outside Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo on 14 August 2013, leaving over 1,000 dead.
After the massacre very few voices of condemnation were heard outside those of the radical left. While liberal opposition figure Mohamed El-Baradei resigned from his post-coup position of vice-president and left the country, the “Tafweed left” cheered on. Sabbahi, who did not demand the resignation of his Popular Current comrade Kamal Abu Aita from the coup government, expressed his sadness because of the high number of deaths but nevertheless maintained that the “dispersal” of the MB gathering was necessary and justified, shifting the responsibility of the massacre to the Brotherhood’s leaders. “Progressive” Sabbahi’s opportunistic attitude during that time, including his praising of el-Sisi, can be explained according to Achcar by his naive ambitions, as he believed that a presidential election would occur soon and he saw himself in a good position to win it.45
Was 30 June 2013 a revolutionary wave?
Achcar argues, as we have seen above, that 30 June 2013 represented a second wave of the revolution, later hijacked by the military. However, the political continuity between the 30 June demonstrations and the Tafweed demonstration is made clear by the fact that the participants and their slogans were largely similar, bar the RS and the 6 April movement, both of which had played only an insignificant role on 30 June as they found that their mobilisation and agitation, which invoked the emancipatory spirit of the January revolution, were completely out of phase with the overwhelming political reality of the day.46
The peak in workers’ struggles, that Achcar sees as evidence for the revolutionary nature of 30 June 2013,47 must be analysed in its political and historical context since the January 2011 revolution: while industrial action had played a decisive role in toppling Mubarak in early 2011, the revolutionary forces were generally unable to lever the political potential of the economic struggles of the subsequent period.48 Perhaps the most striking symbol of that historical failure is veteran trade unionist Kamal Abu Aita’s appointment as minister of labour in the post-coup government. Rosa Luxemburg outlined in her classical pamphlet The Mass Strike how economic struggles of workers could reciprocate into political struggle and vice-versa, potentially culminating in a mass revolutionary uprising.49 In the case of Egypt in 2013, Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny explain that:
Mursi’s end illustrates therefore that “reciprocal action” between economic and political struggles is not a process that points inevitably in a single direction. Despite the depth and breadth of the wave of social struggles during his year in power, the politics of the counter-revolution came to dominate the political protest movement, setting the process of “reciprocal action” into reverse.50
The counter-revolution and the rise of el-Sisi
Achcar assesses the rise of el-Sisi, first as the head of SCAF that had evinced Mursi, and aptly sums up the essence of his rule: “Sisi seized power as head of the old regime’s military command in order to restore a neoliberal order of unbridled capitalist exploitation, prioritising the attraction of foreign investment while resting on financial dependence towards the Saudi Kingdom”.51 El-Sisi then ran—and easily won—a presidential election in May 2014, another indicator of the consolidation of the counter-revolution: “The old electoral tricks of the old regime’s political and security machine were back at full strength”.52
Through the Raba’a massacre, the mass political arrests and what Achcar describes as “the repressive madness that seized the judiciary”, the counter-revolution under el-Sisi reversed the effects of January 2011 and its subsequent period that had seen people participate in great numbers in the country’s political destiny. Achcar notices that the very low turnout to the 2015 parliamentary election—at most half the turnout of the 2012 elections—is a testimony to the degree of disenfranchisement felt by large sections of the population.53
Neoliberalism, megaprojects and the army
Achcar sees el-Sisi’s economic policies as the continuity of the IMF-endorsed neoliberal reforms initiated under Anwar al-Sadat: “In this respect, the Sisi regime—the most repressive government of Egypt in the neoliberal era—went significantly further down the road than its predecessors”.54
Years of revolutionary turmoil have only added to Egypt’s economic woes, with large amounts of capital flight, as well as a decline in investment and tourism.55 Achcar notes that the IMF endorsed a 2014/2015 budget that included major subsidy cuts and tax and price hikes. He insists on the—often overlooked—link between neoliberalism and authoritarianism, as it was the climate of repressive fear that allowed the regime to implement its unpopular cuts.56
The infrastructural megaprojects constitute another pillar of the el-Sisi regime: “al-Sisi offered [the Egyptians] an exercise in smoke and mirrors: a pharaonic scheme, the bulk of which is conditioned by hypothetical foreign direct investment—primarily from the Gulf oil monarchies”.57 Achcar observes that megaprojects like the New Suez Canal play an important political role in the eyes of the regime, despite being based on a questionable economic rationale.58 He rightly sees them as symbols of the socioeconomic nature of the regime, characterised by increasing dependence on Saudi money and the escalation of the army’s involvement in economic affairs—Achcar does not hesitate to talk of “the military takeover of Egypt”.
Strategy for the Arab left
In the closing chapter Achcar sums up his interpretation of the counter-revolutionary wave that is sweeping the Arab world, but rightly insists that future revolutionary upheavals are likely to occur. In order for the left to be able to shape them, he calls for the establishment of strong progressive leaderships, whose strategy he outlines as follows:
[The progressive left] can on occasion and for purely tactical reasons strike together with “unlikely bedfellows”—whether with Islamic forces against the old regime, or vice-versa—but it should always be marching separately, clearing its own fundamental path at equal distance from the two reactionary camps. Tactical short-term alliances can be concluded with the devil if need be; but the devil should never be portrayed as an angel on such occasions—such as by calling the Muslim Brotherhood “reformist” or the old regime forces “secular”, thus trying to prettify their deeply reactionary nature.59
Naturally, it would be silly to consider the Brotherhood “reformists” in the classical Marxist sense of using reforms in order to attempt to bring about socialism; nor can they be considered of a similar nature to European social democratic parties. However, they can be seen as reformists insofar as they promise their supporters real change through institutionally-sanctioned reforms to the existing state. This, added to the contradictory class composition of the organisation, explains its opportunistic faltering when it comes to dealing with the state, and its aversion to mass movements from below that it cannot control. The other reformist opposition, such as the traditional left and the liberals, is not immune from those opportunistic tendencies; their “progressive values” never prevented them from colluding with the state at the height of the counter-revolution.
The principal objective difference between the different wings of the opposition to the regime lies in their attitude to the state. Therefore, the revolutionary left can strike united front tactical alliances with reformists, be they Islamists or not, around well-defined issues, with the double objective of winning real, if limited, victories (that can themselves pave the way for larger mobilisations), as well as coming into contact and working alongside sections of supporters of the reformist opposition—including some of the Islamists—that could be won over to revolutionary socialist ideas. This is necessary if the revolutionary left wants to yield any weight in the future mass upheavals.
This does not for a second imply any retreat or compromise over fundamental principles such as gender equality, LGBT+ liberation, the rights of religious and other minorities, secularism or indeed the need to overthrow the state and its armed forces. Nor does it imply any complacency towards the Muslim Brotherhood or a whitewashing of its history in office, from its resorting to using armed police against striking workers to the religious sectarian taint it gave to its agitation when its isolation became more felt in 2013.
But to consider the regime and its Islamist opposition as equally reactionary from the onset and to sanction the idea of tactical alliances with the state against the Islamists like Achcar does misses the mark and can lead the left down paths similar to that of 30 June 2013. Rather, as Chris Harman argued in the conclusion to his 1994 essay “The Prophet and the Proletariat”, the revolutionary left should be “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never” whenever the former are in opposition.60
In Morbid Symptoms Achcar rightly emphasises that the current counter-revolutionary wave, like the 2011 uprisings, is part of a long-term protracted revolutionary process; and thus that the Middle East will not know stability any time soon short of radical social change. However, his shoving of any manifestation of political Islam in the all-encompassing “Islamist fundamentalist” category, where everything from cross-class mass movements like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, elitist military groups like ISIS and the Gulf’s ruling classes are included to form an inherently reactionary and anti-democratic second pole of the counter-revolution alongside the ancien regimes is problematic. This approach does not take into account the deeply contradictory class nature of mass organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, and risks leading socialists into an objective collusion with the state, by adopting, at best, a stance of passive or active neutrality whenever the latter cracks down on the former. As is evident from the cases of Egypt and Syria, it is the state, with its armed forces, its judiciary and other core institutions, and backing by the regional ruling classes, that is the real force behind counter-revolution in the region. It is the only force that can restore the old order in a harsher form or bring about the destruction of the very society that dares rise up against it. While it is a very informative work, Morbid Symptoms stops short of providing socialists with the key to curing the underlying illnesses that shape the region.
Jad Bouharoun is a Lebanese socialist and member of the SWP.
1 Achcar, 2016.
2 Achcar, 2016, p13.
3 Achcar, 2016, p47.
4 Achcar, 2016, p44.
5 Achcar, 2016, p33.
6 Achcar, 2016, p42.
7 Achcar, 2016, p27.
8 Callinicos, 2014.
9 Achcar, 2016, p7.
10 Achcar, 2016, p12.
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