Saturday, February 25, 2006

Egypt and the Ghost of Marx

Khalil El-Anani has written a particulaly compelling piece of Marxist inanity in al-Ahram that was just brought to my attention. It has irritated me enough to take a pause from my holiday to write a response.

The struggle between the NDP and the Ikhwan, he posits, is a struggle between two bourgeois classes: the NDP derives support from comprador bourgeois who are exploiting externally-imposed 'reform' for personal gain; the Ikhwan derives support from the petit bourgeois who are excluded from the commanding heights of the economy by the alliance of comprador capitalists and the state bureaucracy.

"This elite," he writes, "relied on external support more than connections on the domestic front..." Using international pressure for domestic leverage is an interesting tactic that I have seen deployed a couple of times in Saudi Arabia and Iran; I haven't really seen it employed in Egypt, given that the NDP tends well to the army and to ensuring its control over parliament.

Personally, my impression is that the NDP has a well-rehearsed strategy of co-opting as many local powerbrokers and fixers as it can - primarily by offering them incentives, whether for themselves or for their constituents - so that it can ensure its clear majority in parliament. Note well that relatively few NDP candidates won their races in the last parliamentary election: the NDP only secured its majority by coaxing 'independents' back into the fold. The regime's only nod to foreign interests lies in hyping up the Islamist threat so that America will continue paying for the army - which has very, very little to do with global capitalism and rather a lot to do with geopolitics and America's fear of Islam since the Iranians told them where to go in 1979.

I could be wrong, but I'd take a little more persuading than el-Inani has bothered with (ie. simple assertion sans supporting evidence).

"... the price of its incorporation into the global market paid by overlooking society's basic demands." Then he throws it all away. How
does he suppose the government is to pay for society's basic demands? You need an economy to generate wealth of which the government can appropriate a surplus which can then be plowed back into public services. And to have an economy you need the three factors of production: labour, land and capital. Labour and land Egypt has in
abundance; capital it does not. So it can't introduce the equipment it needs to better exploit its resources and create products that can be sold, whether domestically or abroad, without playing the international capitalism game one way or another. So it has gone to energy companies and said: "We have gas, put up the money to extract it and ship it abroad and make a profit after you've paid us your share"; it has said to international organisations like USAID and the EU "We have lots of poor people and little money, can we have some money to build sewerage and water treatment facilities and lay new pipes?"; and it has gone to major power firms and said "We need more power, we'll give you gas for this much and buy power from you for that much, go raise the money to build a power station yourself"; and it has gone to the likes of Microsoft and said "Our people has great potential but we have not the money nor the skills to give them the best opportunity: please pay for a university so that our people can join the new economy."

There is an alternative, of course. Egypt could go back to a feudalistic autarky, Mubarak could officially become Pharoah and they could build all of their public works through slave labour whilst the rest of the peasants pound corn between the reeds on the banks of the Nile. Oh - sorry, I forgot, they think that the Ancient Egyptians failed because their were dirty apostates. And modern Egyptians quite like TV and music and having an army and that kind of thing. Okay, maybe that's not so much of an option after all.

El-Anani's underlying argument about the comprador bourgeoisie - that people try to get into parliament not through any civic ideal but because it gives them access to state resources - I wouldn't disagree with, but it's hardly innovative. The really interesting thing, to my mind, is how they get there, what kinds of deals they cut, and how the cycle of deal-making might be broken - a lot of it basic decision theoretical stuff. All this nonsense about comprador bourgeoisie puts the blame on the global system - capitalism - instead of on the local system - a political/economic system built on wasta, nepotism, connexions and latant corruption rather than on meritocracy or any kind of civic ideal. Saying "oh well they're bound to act like that, they're comprador bourgeois, see it says so here in the book Cardoso wrote so it must be the eternal truth because he was a Marxist up until he became president and adopted remarkably liberal economic policies but we won't talk about that bit" is intellectual laziness and closes the door to what is probably one of the most important research agendas that there are in Egyptian political economy.

Which brings me to his final point - will the Ikhwan, qua 'petit bourgeois', really be an improvement on the current situation? It is hard to tell what their economic policies might be: what is fairly clear is that their basic political mobilisation strategy is co-optive and communitarian, subsuming the many smaller struggles of their constituents into their overarching worldview. Does that really make for a movement that will "regain the heritage of the Egyptian middle class"? It sounds rather like the emergence of a vanguard group that, through a powerful core idea, flexibility of ideology and intelligent bargaining, is proving able to subsume smaller groups and smaller struggles and interpose itself as the mediator between the individual and the body politic. That, to me, does not sound like the revival of civil society. For signs of that revival I would look, rather, to Baheyya's coverage of the judges' stand against the Mubarak government's abuse of executive power, which looks rather more like an authochthonous, independent form of organisation resisting co-option by the ruling elite.

Compradors? Give me a break.