The politics of mobilization and demobilization (Part 1)

On the anniversary of the demise of one form of political authority, I find myself contemplating the very nature of the new regime that is currently being formed.

While some people have expressed their consternation over our investing so much time in debating and defining fascism and totalitarianism, and whether these definitions apply to the current or previous situations, I feel this is exactly the right time to do so. At a point in time where we feel suffocated by an ever-shrinking political space, perhaps it might be useful to engage in some brain exercises.

We certainly have a lot of free time on our hands.

The term fascism has several connotations. In an article published on November 30, 2013, Amr Adly looks into the differences between the new regime that is currently being formed and the former regime, led by elected President Mohamed Morsi.

Adly was mainly looking for signs of the existence, or absence of, fascist tendencies — in the very literal sense of the term, and not as a general descriptor. He uses Juan Linz’s definition of fascism as something that should not be confused with other pluralist forms of authoritarianism, since it is based on a totalitarianism driven by extremist religious and nationalist tendencies that has arisen in a very specific set of circumstances in the interim period between the two world wars.

The author explains how fascism “used powerful mobilization tools and socialist organizational structures to hit the very core of socialism itself and to destroy the labor movement.” He adds that “defining fascism as a revolution against the revolution is not merely figurative” — a “conservative” revolution is how he describes it.

This one definition of fascism is associated with the foundering of the socialist and labor parties in Italy and other European countries in that interim period between the two great wars. Although it would be impossible to replicate those events that defined fascism, it is however possible that a certain political system might have some classical fascist features today.

I was particularly interested by a recent discussion between Adly and another political science researcher, who sarcastically kept asking Adly whether today’s fascism, which Adly presented as a possibility, has finally been realized. Adly would respond by differentiating between the above definition of fascism and oppressive or totalitarian regimes that depend wholly on an oppressive security infrastructure.

In order to clarify this differentiation, we should first dissect the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment in power.

Early on, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist alliance showed antagonism to any proposal for re-configuring the relationship between state and society around revolutionary, democratic lines, or freedoms-related lines. They used popular mobilization tactics to prove to the state in general, and the Armed Forces in specific, that they have the necessary manpower to hegemonize the political space, and force their agenda as the sole agenda on the negotiating table.

Their first exhibit of fascist tendencies was the massive protest on July 29, 2011. This was repeated in 2012, when they mobilized for protests that demanded Sharia plus various other side issues. The Brotherhood used popular mobilization among their ranks to forcefully break up the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace protests in December 2012. The Brotherhood deployed its supporters to back their leaders’ decisions and to confront crowds of protesters who were opposed to Morsi’s regime. This tactic of deployment of the rank and file reached a climax in the deployment in Rabea al-Adaweya Square on June 28, 2013.

What about the current political setup? It’s easy to see that the current regime is light years ahead of Morsi’s presidency as far as oppression is concerned. Perhaps the current rulers’ biggest accomplishment lies in resurrecting the infrastructure of the security apparatus that has been, over the past three years, evidently fearful of Egyptian society.

The scales have clearly tipped in favor of the state. The police have succeeded for the first time since 2011 in realizing their objective behind the use of brutal or excessive force — suppression. For three years, the police have been killing people left and right, but they were never able to able to suppress mobilization.

That’s the major difference between the situation today and the events of the past three years. I could say that since 2011, I have never once felt really oppressed, which is how I’m feeling now.

Is this situation durable? Will the current regime utilize fascist tools to consolidate its rule?

Why is this important anyway? I recall a conversation with my colleague Amr Abdel Rahman where he mentioned that the quintessential difference between the current regime and Morsi’s is that the Muslim Brotherhood never tried to “exclude” the people from the political scene, which appears to be what the current regime is attempting to do. The Brothers have actively worked to keep society in a constant state of mobilization — specifically, they mobilized the constituency of the Islamist movement so that they were in a constant state of conflict with the rest of society, as explained above.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s failure was that, in overestimating its ability to use mobilization effectively, it also seemed to have overestimated its size and material strength.

Let’s, for example, recall the confrontations that took place between Islamist and non-Islamist protesters in mosques during the 2012 constitutional referendum. Or those that took place two Fridays in a row in Alexandria’s Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque. Hazemoun (supporters of Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail), who represent the seed of “Khomeinism” in Egypt, spearheaded the demonstrations of the second Friday. The ensuing street battles ended in a “defeat” of the Islamists, who ended up leaving via a safe exit provided by the police amid the residents’ offensive chants.

In the end, one could say the Islamic movement was sufficiently well organized and was capable of gathering, mobilizing and dispersing its supporters easily. This was the most prominent fascist aspect of Morsi’s government.

As for the current regime, it appears that it is trying to achieve what no politician has even attempted since the revolution, which is to return to the way things were before January 2011 by removing the public from the political scene altogether. It is an authoritarian regime that has traits of “McCarthyism.”

Perhaps the main difference between “McCarthyism” and fascism is that the former’s tools of governing and control lie exclusively in the hands of the security forces,  while citizens have to stick to their role of reporting their neighbors to the authorities.

The Hobbesian war, or the war of all against all

There are obviously clear fascist and nationalistic tendencies in the current regime, but I still cannot clearly read its position vis-à-vis fascism. Does it aim for it, or fear it and only use elements of it when necessary?

This regime had one gloriously fascistic moment, which was on July 26 when Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called Egyptians to the streets to authorize him to combat terrorism. Asking people to go vote in the 2014 constitutional referendum is quite different, and the public response to this call wasn’t that great either, since the turnout was reportedly around 38 percent.

There is, however, a general fascist mood, one could say, which is clearly apparent in the media. There are also wide segments of the public that are willing to commit violence in a way akin to that which the “revolutionary Islamists” aspired to.

I’m not sure where the state — which does not have unified positions on many things — stands in regard to all this. On the eve of August 14, for instance, a number of neighborhood watches spontaneously began to form to aid police in their attempt to enforce the curfew and hunt down “Islamists.” By nightfall on the second day, the police had “shooed away” all civilians who were attempting to help from the streets of Cairo.

The state doesn’t have the organizational capacity of a fascist regime. There isn’t a social movement in Egypt that is truly capable of translating fascist momentum into real, systematic practice except the Muslim Brotherhood.

The National Democratic Party (NDP) was never a social movement as such. Its infrastructure was formed from an intricate web of profiteers, as described by Mohamed Mosleh, “that functioned as a political wing to the established regime, which foundered as soon as there was a presentiment that the regime’s infrastructure was about to collapse. The conditions of the NDP’s existence are unrecoverable because the circumstances that created their genesis are the very same that have destroyed it post-revolution.”

What the state has at its disposal now is a gigantic bureaucratic machine and a security apparatus that is some how successful in oppressing. That doesn’t seem enough, however, for the state cannot stop the spontaneous gatherings of people, even that of its own supporters, whether violent or not.

I remember a shootout that took place on Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street on August 28, where the army was accompanied by crowds of supporters, reminiscent of football crowds. To this day, we still don’t know the exact details of the events that transpired.

I also remember the sight of people dancing outside the voting polls of the 2014 constitutional referendum, which raised a lot of eyebrows and caused a stir of controversy.

I remember reading an eyewitness account of one of the confrontations between crowds of civilians on August 23 in Tanta between supporters of Morsi’s legitimacy and those who were against it. One eyewitness account described the incident as insane, with soaring levels of civil violence, where kids no older than 13 were carrying makareet (homemade pistols), knives and daggers; their armament exceeded the police force’s weapons. The police belatedly attempted to disperse the crowds using tear gas canisters.

The eyewitness claims that he went up to one of the police officers and asked him, “How do you think you’re going to control all this violence once you’re done with the Muslim Brotherhood, given that the public now has access to a great deal of weapons?” I don’t believe the security forces have bothered to ask themselves that question. They are acting like gangsters, without any sense of social responsibility.

When Morsi was in power, all of the privately owned channel ONtv’s television cameras had a specific frame that would broadcast “civilian clashes in Mansoura” or “civilian clashes in Mahalla,” et cetera. Now, their interest has shifted; for hours we would watch the same news crew standing during curfew to broadcast stability and empty streets.

Even though the confrontations have not yet come to a head, they are more violent than ever, and the killings are still going on, more violently than ever — only this time, away from television cameras.

Tools of control and rules of the political game

There is an apparent contradiction in the functioning of the current regime. On one hand, it needs the backing of the masses (or popular legitimacy). But on the other hand, it doesn’t aspire to be a fascist regime, in terms of using the revolutionary tools and techniques of popular mobilization, which were used by the Brotherhood under Morsi, or by the Khomeini regime, for instance.

But the quandary is that we are no longer living in the 1990s, and the state bureaucracy, before the public, is in a state of mobilization. One only has to recall the police officers’ protests and strikes to recognize this galvanized state.

How will the state attempt the necessary de-mobilization process? Millions are now seeking some kind of political and economic integration — even if through paternalistic, anti-democratic and anti-developmental means. The regime will have to find a way to assimilate them, or demobilize this ongoing circus.

There is a branch in the new regime that aspires to have the kind of iron-fist state where the public is left out of political battles, the way things were before 2011. It dreams of the same measures of control that were at play before January 25. This branch seeks neither fascism nor democracy as it attempts to exclude the people; but at the same time, it can’t quite seem to be able to force the general public out of the loop.

This is an updated translation of the first part of an article that has been translated from Arabic. The original article can be read here.The second part will be published shortly. 

Karim Medhat Ennarah 

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