Where Is Cairo’s Winter Palace?

by Michael Blim

Tumblr_lfppf9gMrB1qz82gvo1_500 With each stone thrown, each Molotov cocktail hurled from one side of Cairo’s Liberation Square to another, an Egyptian revolution appears being thrown further away. The Square is a symbolic space, first occupied by people envisioning revolutionary change, and now made a marker in a game of competition among elites for governance. The state is secure. No one has yet set upon storming Cairo’s Winter Palace. No one in the popular movements against the state has set upon taking the state.

It is puzzling. What are the immediate reasons? Perhaps all of the candidate revolutionary state-takers are dead or among the 17,000 political prisoners of the regime. Not to be under-estimated is the 59-year military rule and two generations of stop and go mixes of cooptation and repression. The figure of Omar Suleiman, the torturer, the renditioner, the Israel interlocutor, says much about the center of things in Egypt today. The sheer corruption of Egyptian state power scars his face. He is no Kerensky; he is evil incarnate.

Perhaps Egypt is better off without a Lenin. In any event, it does not have one. Must it forego revolution as well?

Egypt’s situation presses us to open up our categories of understanding what revolutions are and aren’t. The 1952 nationalist revolution placed the military at the center of the state. Elements of the bourgeoisie and the working classes that helped foment colonial overthrow were subsequently marginalized, their force found wanting against military-organized state power. In China, the Red Army won the Revolution and remains with the Communist Party the center of state power. The Indonesian army through Sukarno and Suharto ruled until the latter's overthrow In 1998. Military leaders are often key political leaders and presidents, as was the case in the Philippines since independence and is the case now in Indonesia. Military than civilian rule was the norm in post-independence Africa, and while the number of military regimes has declined since 1960, the virtual “Presidents for Life” still to be found on the continent are either soldiers or rely heavily on the military for support. Military rule has been a central feature of Latin an Central American history, though the pattern is much more varied. Some regimes have given up rule as a result of middle class resistance, while others have succumbed to elected overthrow triggered by mass unrest.

Military regimes, sifting through the cases of military rule makes it seem, have not been typically defeated through armed struggle. Superior organization and discipline, generous use of repression, and military cannibalism of economic and political structures typically defenestrates the middle and working classes, already not necessarily robust before or during military take-overs. Vanguard leftist groups have tried armed struggle over the past half century with limited success, and their struggles have often strengthened military control of the state.

Yet military regimes have been overcome through mass protest of the sort seen in Tunisia and now in Egypt. The list, if one includes state socialist regimes, is long. The “flower” and various “color” and “people power” revolts since the late eighties, along with massive resistance to attempted military coups against popularly elected governments, suggest that although taking to the piazza can bring good results, a real break with the old regime is not easy. It is probably not typical either, if we mean that the structure of the state is changed.

Aside from the capitalist clique that clustered around the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian bourgeoisie as a class is weak economically and politically divided. Their demands, while noble, focus on procedural democracy and are straight out of the 18th Century. Freedom of association and speech are symbolized in the Liberation Square occupation. Their hope is to demonstrate through mass protest that Mubarak has lost the faith of the people and must go.

To whom do they appeal? Mubarak? The Egyptian Army? Other nations? Perhaps Mubarak, his people, and the Army have learned a thing or two during these days, but it seems counterintuitive to think that Mubarak's unpopularity comes as a surprise to anyone, especially the ruling clique. Their cynical mix of countermoves indicates that they realize their game has usually rested upon deploying violence and its threat to maintain control, rather than the proffer of the olive branch to reconfirm the masses' faith in the regime.

The United States has shown it is only interested in cosmetic change. Its support of Suleiman suggests that it hasn't even the ambition to press for a housecleaning. The imperial stakes are too high, even to let “people power” more than modestly succeed in changing faces at the top.

Yet, here is Egypt, a country where annual per capita income is $2000 a year in purchasing power parity, a number that actually inflates one's impression of their well being. Another number cuts the other way: namely, that 20 million people are still classified as poor by any international definition. Put these two facts together and here is the result: life can be had cheaply in Egypt, because the mass of Egyptians haven't much of anything, but even then, 20 million people are as poor as anyone on earth. One third of Cairo, about 7 million people, have no access to clean water or sanitary waste facilities.

The regime is predatory and protects a handful of skimmers who have amassed huge fortunes by servicing 80 million Egyptians' basic necessities and exploiting its lands, people, and resources. Its distribution of income is predictably highly unequal; its average life expectancy predictably short. Passable economic growth of late has put more money in the hands of the few, and practically nothing in the hands of the many. One Egyptian journalist quotes a saying frequently heard in the Egypt of the last several years: “Anyone who hasn't begged in the time of Mubarak will never beg.”

There are many good reasons why the masses of Cairo have not found and stormed their Winter Palace. The bourgeoisie cannot lead a revolution they do not want, even if the regime's masters had turned their guns on each other. The state, however, as of this writing, remains united, an outcome devoutly wished for (and worked for) by the United States. The Egyptian masses are divided too: on the one hand, many are caught up in the game of capture the piazza, even though they will likely gain little should the middle class reformers succeed. On the other hand, tens of millions appear unsure of the merits of revolt, and fear that further tension and stalemate will cost them dearly.

All of this said, it is still puzzling why no armed struggle has emerged, and why even talk of armed struggle is absent. Perhaps someone in the United States, even with Internet and all, would be the last to hear, given the baffles on our ears. Perhaps, though, a revolution, if it comes, will arise once again from within the Egyptian Army. And this is a prospect I would find finally least surprising of all.