We know by now the extent of Israel’s bluff over Gaza; why it didn’t win; why it could not execute a Cast Lead-style massacre (this is not to deny the mass killing it did perpetrate); and why the US didn’t back its client’s stance in the negotiations.
Israel undertook this mission in part to test the waters after the 2011 revolutions. It wanted to gain a sense of the possibilities, warn surrounding peoples and states that things hadn’t changed that much, and reverse the trend of setbacks and defeats it faced in the last decade despite its brutal punishment of the Palestinians. It also wanted to reinforce Gazans’ sense of their complete helplessness, to underline the futility of resistance. The reality is that the assault, bloody as it was, sputtered to a halt. Israel’s elites couldn’t risk an invasion, and continued bombing was becoming pointless. It was forced in the end to accept a peace settlement whose wording was far closer to that sought by Hamas and the Muslim Brothers (because it imposed a ceasefire ‘on both sides) than by Israel. And this was a serious win for the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who not only gained popularity for rebuking Israel symbolically (despite barely a whiff of material support for Gaza), but was also praised to heaven by the ‘international community’ for his diplomacy. Israel discovered that not only did it lack two of its traditional allies, Egypt and Turkey, but even its sponsor was wary of another shitstorm – caused by Israel. The barbaric utterances of Israeli politicians, the cries of ‘Death to Arabs’, the blood-curdling threats: all this yielded little of strategic value to Israel.
On the other hand, it might have strengthened Morsi immensely had he not then attempted to convert this political capital into executive power. Partly, this was an attempt to use the plaudits garnered from Gaza to consolidate the Muslim Brothers’ position within the state, strengthening their situation with respect to the military. The power struggle between the Egyptian military, SCAF, and the Muslim Brothers settles into a difficult equilibrium for a time, then erupts suddenly with remarkable reversals. But its rhythms are dictated by the wider struggle of classes. This struggle is one that is partially carried on within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which is divided between its dominant business wing and its popular base of students, workers and lone traders. The business faction probably seeks a road to ‘normal’ capitalist democracy, with robust links to the United States, and profitable global trade agreements facilitated by its profile within the Egyptian state. It seeks to contain popular struggle, and put an end to the flourishing of working class organization, and for that reason been willing to coalesce with SCAF at key points. Indeed, insofar as SCAF would share power with them in a meaningful way, allowing them to hold parliament and share the presidency, the leadership of the Muslim Brothers would have been quite open to consolidating that alliance in perpetuity.
As we have seen at several points, however, they have not always been at liberty to do things just exactly as they would have wished. During last November’s upheaval, for example, the Brothers asked their rank and file supporters not to attend protests against military rule. Had their rank and file supporters listened, Morsi might not be where he is. The scale of these protests, in part thanks to the involvement of Muslim Brothers, partially expunged the recent setbacks inflicted on the revolutionary and democratic currents, and expedited the transition to civilian rule. In a smaller example, one recalls how a leading member of the Muslim Brothers sought to witch hunt the Revolutionary Socialists, but was then compelled under pressure to backtrack. It’s difficult to explain the actions of this party either before, during or after the overthrow of Mubarak, unless you grasp its internal antagonisms and its resulting vacillations.
But aside from that, SCAF have not always been happy to share power with the Muslim Brothers. It is trying to conserve its domination, and fears the new situation in which traditional authoritarian rule can no longer be made to work. It has relied on the Muslim Brothers to contain the most destabilising potentialities of democracy, but the armed forces can’t be at ease with a situation in which they rely on a party with a popular base which it can summon, and whose members they used to torture. This is likely one of the reasons why cooperation between the two forces broke down, why the army stood its own presidential candidate, Shafiq, who stood an openly counter-revolutionary ticket, and why when that failed they attempted to effectively restore military rule. The presidency is the strategic lynchpin of Egyptian state power, and for the army to have to either share this or lose it to what they see as a rabble is a real defeat. I think they also wanted to neutralise the threat that the Muslim Brothers effectively dangled over them (however reluctantly), and to do that they felt they had to mount a frontal assault on the gains of the revolution. But their past hesitations and defeats, their unpopularity, and the strength of the Islamists put a stop to that. Morsi, with a clear electoral mandate and a mass based organisation bolstering his position, faced the military down in August, sacked the top generals and took back the powers they had attempted to usurp.
Now that the Muslim Brothers, in the form of the Freedom and Justice Party, have achieved unchallenged executive and parliamentary power, and with Morsi’s stature enlarged by Israel’s bungle, the thinking must have been that there is a unique moment of opportunity before the new constitutional order is settled, to inscribe the Islamists’ desideratum in the new state architecture. Morsi attempted to place himself and the actions of the Constituent Assembly, dominated by the Muslim Brothers, outside of judicial review until the next election. He shrouded this in populist concessions, such as impeaching the reactionary prosecutor-general, who had been protecting the Mubarak-era officials while hunting the revolutionaries. However, the ramifications of dictatorial power were evidently clear enough for hundreds of thousands to turn out to protest in Tahrir Square, and for the Muslim Brothers’ headquarters to be burned out.
Of course, it’s hard to sympathise with those rallying to the defence of the Brothers. The people who usually attack them from the right, the salafists, are the ones defending them now. Meanwhile, the opposition mostly consists of those who are consistent in supporting democracy. However, this opens up a new situation, in which the ‘feloul’, the wretched remnants of the old regime, are trying to creep back into legitimate politics by claiming the mantle of secularism. They have been seen, the likes of the old Mubarak stooge Amr Moussa, hanging around the protests, but declining to enter Tahrir Square in the knowledge that they will be chewed up and spat out. Even the scumbag Shafiq has tried on some revolutionary apparel.
In this situation, it’s important to work out what the Muslim Brothers are actually up to. I think the Muslim Brothers leadership most likely still looks to the development of a ‘normal’, neoliberal capitalist democracy over the long term. I think what they want is the space to a) engineer the new constitution to favour the Freedom and Justice Party’s dominance as much as possible, and b) force through a number of measures that will hurt popular constituencies but win the support of the IMF and allow them to get loans. Possibly, they also envisage some socially conservative changes, such as to personal status law, that would be controversial but placate forces to their right. Morsi’s power grab is thus profoundly authoritarian, profoundly undemocratic, and poses a direct threat to the gains of the revolution. That said, I think the stuff about 1979 all over again, a new clerical dictatorship and so on, is missing the point and actually could give cover to the felouls.
The Muslim Brothers are probably not going to win this fight. I don’t really see the chopping blocks being wheeled out for the leftists and secular opposition. What I see is the Muslim Brothers running scared from a confrontation over Tahrir Square, the symbol of the revolution. What I see is that their attempt to place their stamp on the revolution itself, and to claim that the opposition is counter-revolutionary, is floundering. The left looks more confident, the right less so. And the real question now will be whether a section of the Muslim Brothers base splits over this to support the revolution.
Now, with all that said, it’s clear that there are still months and years of high stakes battles to be had in Egypt. The struggle there is far from settled. It’s also clear, despite the carping of some Egyptian liberals, that Palestine is an extremely resonant issue in the Egyptian revolution. The alliance that brought down Mubarak was initially consolidated around the Second Intifada. Many of its elements rushed to Gaza to try and show solidarity during Cast Lead, only to be restrained by the Egyptian military. During Pillar of Smoke, many Egyptian revolutionaries travelled to Gaza to break the blockade, and succeeded. Morsi really had no choice but to denounce Israel, to withdraw the ambassador, and to use the Egyptian state’s clout to force an unhappy ending on Israel’s warmongers. This was the least that could have been expected of him in the circumstances: a genuinely resistant regime would have been giving material aid to Gaza. And that changing situation is part of the reason that many of the global powers that tend to take a pro-Israeli position have either backed Abu Mazen’s statehood bid, or abstained.
It seems to me that one important strategic conclusion follows from this. The route to Palestinian liberation is one that must be plotted through the region as a whole, not the respectable drawing rooms of nice American liberals or the hallowed chambers of international law. The old system of necrotic dictatorships, whether pro-US or nominally resistant, has been the greatest alibi of Israeli interests. New, genuinely popular regimes, will be the best ally of the Palestinians. It’s not just that they can provide the means of military resistance, though they can certainly do that. It’s that they can change the whole regional balance of power. If even Erdogan and Morsi, two relatively conservative Islamist figures, can weaken Israel’s position so, then consider what a more radical configuration of power would mean for Palestine.