Just as in past periods of rising struggle, the democratic social and anti-imperialist movement in Egypt is up against a powerful reactionary bloc. This bloc can perhaps be identified in terms of its social composition (its component classes, of course) but it is just as important to define it in terms of its means of political intervention and the ideological discourse serving its politics.
In social terms, the reactionary bloc is led by the Egyptian bourgeoisie taken as a whole. The forms of dependent accumulation operative over the past forty years brought about the rise of a rich bourgeoisie, the sole beneficiary of the scandalous inequality accompanying that “globalized liberal” model. It is a class of some tens of thousands — not of “innovating entrepreneurs” as the World Bank likes to call them but of millionaires and billionaires all owing their fortunes to collusion with the political apparatus (corruption being an organic part of their system). This is a comprador bourgeoisie (in the political language current in Egypt the people term them “corrupt parasites”). They make up the active support for the integration of Egypt in contemporary imperialist globalization as an unconditional ally of the United States. Within its ranks this bourgeoisie counts numerous military and police generals, “civilians” with connections to the state and to the dominant National Democratic party created by Sadat and Mubarak, and of religious personalities — the whole leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the leading sheikhs of the Al Azhar University are all of them “billionaires.” Certainly there still exists a bourgeoisie of active small-and-medium entrepreneurs. But they are the victims of the racketeering system put in place by the comprador bourgeoisie, usually reduced to the status of subordinate subcontractors for the local monopolists, themselves mere transmission belts for the foreign monopolies. In the construction industry this system is the general rule: the “greats” snap up the state contracts and then subcontract the work to the “smalls.” That authentically entrepreneurial bourgeoisie is in sympathy with the democratic movement.
The rural side of the reactionary bloc has no less importance. It is made up of rich peasants who were the main beneficiaries of Nasser’s agrarian reform, replacing the former class of wealthy landlords. The agricultural cooperatives set up by the Nasser regime included both rich and poor peasants, so they mainly worked for the benefit of the rich. But the regime also had measures to limit possible abuse of the poor peasants. Once those measures had been abandoned, on the advice of the World Bank, by Sadat and Mubarak, the rural rich went to work to hasten the elimination of the poor peasants. In modern Egypt the rural rich have always constituted a reactionary class, now more so than ever. They are likewise the main sponsors of conservative Islam in the countryside and, through their close (often family) relationships with the officials of the state and religious apparatuses (in Egypt the Al Azhar university has a status equivalent to an organized Muslim Church) they dominate rural social life. What is more, a large part of the urban middle classes (especially the army and police officers but likewise the technocrats and medical/legal professionals) stem directly from the rural rich.
This reactionary bloc has strong political instruments in its service: the military and police forces, the state institutions, the privileged political party (that is a de facto single party — the National Democratic Party created by Sadat), the religious apparatus (Al Azhar), and the factions of political Islam (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists). The military assistance (amounting to some $1.5 billion annually) extended by the US to the Egyptian Army was never meant to strengthen the country’s defensive capacity. On the contrary, the aid was meant to annihilate the threat posed by it through the systematic corruption that, with the greatest cynicism, was not merely known and tolerated but actively promoted. That “aid” allowed the highest ranks to take over for themselves some important parts of the Egyptian comprador economy, to the point that “Army Incorporated” (Sharika al geish) became a commonplace term. The High Command, who made itself responsible for directing the Transition, is thus not at all “neutral” despite its effort to appear so by distancing itself from the acts of repression. The “civilian” government chosen by and obedient to it, made up largely of the less conspicuous men from the former regime, has taken a series of completely reactionary measures aimed at blocking any radicalization of the movement. Among those measures are a vicious anti-strike law (on the pretext of economic revival), and a law placing severe restrictions on the formation of political parties, aimed at confining the electoral game to the tendencies of political Islam (especially the Muslim Brotherhood), which are already well organized thanks to their systematic support by the former regime. Nevertheless, despite all that, the attitude of the army remains, at bottom, unforeseeable. In spite of the corruption of its cadres (the rank and file are conscripts, the officers professionals) nationalist sentiment has still not disappeared entirely. Moreover, the army resents having in practice lost most of its power to the police. In these circumstances, and because the movement has forcefully expressed its will to exclude the army from political leadership of the country, it is very likely that the High Command will seek in the future to remain behind the scenes rather than to present its own candidates in the coming elections.
Though it is clear that the police apparatus has remained intact (their prosecution is not contemplated) like the state apparatus in general (the new rulers all being veteran regime figures), the National Democratic Party vanished in the tempest and its legal dissolution has been ordered. But we can be certain that the Egyptian bourgeoisie will make sure that its party is reborn under a different label or labels.
Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal and author of The Liberal Virus (Monthly Review Press, 2004), The World We Wish to See (Monthly Review Press, 2008), and most recently The Law of Worldwide Value (Monthly Review Press, 2010). The text above is an excerpt from Samir Amin, “2011: An Arab Springtime?” (Monthly Review, 2 June 2011).