From al-Sisi to Trump: capitalism at its worst
Is there a link between the rise of Trump, his accession to presidency in the United States and the rise of al-Sisi and what he is doing to solidify his rule in Egypt? In my view the answer is yes.
We live today in an integrated capitalist world that is still suffering the effects of the 2008 great recession. The levels of poverty and unemployment created by this recession were shocking for large sections of the working class and middle classes. The United States has seen a rise of a racist and reactionary right, first embodied in the so-called ‘Tea Party’ wing of the Republican Party before Trump was able to occupy that space. On the other end of the spectrum, we saw the rise of a new left inside the Democratic Party represented by Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian communist who almost defeated Clinton during the primaries. A similar phenomenon unraveled in Britain as the political centre faltered and a new right has risen embodied in the racist and anti-immigrant UKIP, while the new left emerged inside the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn.
The quasi permanent crisis of capitalism has made the masses lose confidence in their traditional political elites, who have all adopted the same neoliberal policies. There is a thirst for alternatives, whether from the populist right that exploits people’s fear of unemployment and poverty and directs it towards illusory enemies (Muslims, Mexicans, foreigners, foreign conspiracies, etc) or from a left that proposes more radical views, albeit within in a reformist framework.
Trump is not merely a right-wing pro-capitalist leader; he is much more dangerous than that. He aims to build upon the fear and anger of specific sections of people (parts of the white middle and working class) to spur them into a nationalist, racist hysteria that opposes not only revolution but any progressive gain or reform.
This leads us to the question: why has a revolutionary left been unable to build effectively outside of the suffocating frames of reformist parties to impose itself as an alternative to that nightmare? This question is neither abstract nor historical; the challenge is still on the table, the anger is still rising and the capitalist crises are ongoing. The rise of Trump and his likes is not inevitable. What happened in the US in November 2016 is a lesson on the danger of the populist right as well as the depth of the capitalist crisis and the failure of the traditional left in reformist parties to address the challenge.
What about November 2016 in Egypt? Naturally Egypt is not separated from this capitalist world and its political and social crises. Revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt from 2011 until today are part and parcel of this new world, with its possibilities and its dangers, its revolutionary, reformist and counter-revolutionary forces. The events of November 2016 in Egypt are part of the same challenge represented by Trump’s accession to the US presidency.
The economic decisions taken in Egypt this November which laid the ground for a large IMF loan are revealing, perhaps more decisively than ever before, of the economic and social essence of the counter-revolution. This can be seen on more than one level. The first one is the direct class content; many of the supporters of the 3 July 2013 coup who have been part in the so-called 30 June alliance, and even some leftists (Samir Ameen for instance) had expected in the first days of the coup that al-Sisi would adopt populist economic policies that would offer, even in a limited way, some concessions to the majority of workers, peasants and the poor. They expected al-Sisi to distance himself in one way or another from the extreme neoliberal policies that Mubarak’s latest governments had championed. These predictions were clothed with a variety of theories, such as the illusory supposition of the existence of antagonisms between the interests of the army and the state on one side and big businessmen and Gamal Mubarak’s entourage on another. Others have imagined, more stupidly, that the leaders of the coup had a developmentalist vision and would play a role similar to that of the Nasser era.
However these fantasies have vanished by now; we have only seen, from the post-coup governments of Biblawi to Shareef Ismail, austerity and neoliberal policies and a return to prominence of the Mubarak era’s big businessmen in a renewed, interwoven alliance with the army leadership and the state. What is more, the November decisions represent a qualitative shift not only compared to the policies of the last two years, but they express and essential difference between the al-Sisi and Mubarak regimes. Firstly, we should recall that in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the regime (whether under SCAF or Morsi) was compelled to give concessions whether by offsetting any austerity reforms or by hiring civil servants on permanent contracts. These concessions came under the pressure from successive waves of strikes in the wake of the revolution; the 2013 coup came to halt these concessions and progressively start a counter-offensive in carefully thought-out stages.
The counter-offensive started with the political mobilisation that laid the ground for the coup, before the phase of repression, massacres and emergency laws that aimed to liquidate any form of opposition to the coup; this targeted the Muslim Brotherhood before encompassing all who have taken part in the 2011 revolution. This period also saw the political and agitational preparation of the social and economic attacks that we see today. We all remember the components of the propaganda campaign that formed a sort of soundtrack to the movie of repression and ongoing killings: the production cycle, the crisis, anarchy, foreign conspiracies, the risks of terrorism, the plots of evil forces, the danger of the collapse of the state and the comparison with Syria and Iraq.
We must pay attention to the fact that the counter-revolution is not merely a return to the old regime. Through a mixture of political and ideological propaganda and unprecedented levels of repression, the counter-revolution attempts to apply what the old regime could not; this general picture repeats itself in all counter-revolutions. The very event of the revolution signifies that the old regime can no longer sustain itself, and therefore that it is not possible to simply restore it or rebuild it as it was. The leaders of the counter-revolution must transform the momentum and audacity of the revolution into momentum and audacity of the counter-revolution. Stagnation and hesitation have exposed the old regime’s weakness and opened the gates of hell before the ruling class – the gates of revolution. It was not enough to break the confidence, the audacity and the capabilities of the masses that emerged during the revolution by repression and the mobilisation of sections of the middle classes against it; it was necessary to go further and transform that into an organised attack on the rights and gains of the masses to make them pay for the failures and crises of the old ruling class. That is what distinguishes the November 2016 decisions.
Austerity measures and currency devaluation as a condition for international loans, particularly from the IMF are nothing new for the Egyptian ruling class and its military. The Egyptian regime has been borrowing money from the IMF since the Nasser era in the 1960s, in exchange for “economic and monetary reforms” like the devaluation of the Egyptian pound (a $20 million loan was obtained against devaluation of the pound from 35.2 pence to 43.5 pence to the US dollar in 1962).
However, as al-Sisi himself admitted in a speech, the resistance of the workers and the masses to subsidy cuts that reached its peak in the 1977 uprising had made the regime exercise much caution and hesitation when applying those reforms; the time had come for the government to act with audacity and resolve.
The tragedy of incomplete and defeated revolutions lies not only in the abhorrent price paid in blood and repression, but also in the creation of a new enemy whose sole purpose is reuniting the ruling class and taking it from the defensive onto the offensive.
The excuse for November’s decisions are nothing new and are repeated by every government that adopts such policies: austerity and subsidy cuts (i.e. the indirect lowering of wages) are the only solution for budget deficit, and currency devaluation (i.e. the increase in prices relative to wages) will encourage foreign investment, exports and tourism, and decreasing public sector employment (i.e. sacking workers and employees) will increase the efficiency of the state’s administrative apparatus. These justifications are nothing more than lies that are reproduced since the 1970s. Excuses that are presented as if economic crises were predestined fatalities like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As if by magic, the worker and peasant become the reason for the failure of Egyptian capitalism to produce, modernise and export.
These measures, in reality, are a way to end the crisis of Egyptian capitalism by shifting its burden on the poor. A currency devaluation of over 50% in a country that imports most of its essential products with a foreign currency means nothing less than an unprecedented cut in wages and real income for the vast majority of the population. To have this coincide with subsidy cuts on essential commodities like fuel shows that we are facing the huge impoverishment and direct pillage of the majority of Egyptians in favour of the big businessmen and the leaders of the state and the army. This is where the political and economic fuse; Abdelfattah al-Sisi wants to shock the masses with this unprecedented attack. He defies a people that made a revolution for a better life against the same class, the same regime and the same policies.
The question, of course is how do we confront this challenge? How do we make the link between the fight against the state’s repression and despotism and the fight against the impoverishment policies? This confrontation will not simply come through a day of action and demonstration that some are calling for, or that the security forces would like to push some towards. Al-Sisi is not Mubarak, and his regime has gone through and learned from the experience of the first revolution and his coup has not begun to falter yet. There is no shortcut to confront this danger that is looming over the lives and welfare of a majority of Egyptians. We need to rebuild the social and political opposition to the regime and its policies, through political organisations, workers’ unions, youth and student organisations and political fronts that can unite the forces of the 25 January revolution. The economic policies that are applied today must be turned from a cause for fear, demoralisation and retreat to a challenge that unites us around patient and unrelenting work not only to stop those policies but to get us rid of the nightmare of the military and the businessmen altogether. And if anyone doubts the links between the November events in Egypt and the United States, let them wait for Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s first visit to the White House.