Tag Archives: Leon Trotsky

The Army and the People are NOT One Hand: Neoliberal Hegemony and the Armed Forces in the Arab Spring

(paper delivered at DePaul University’s ‘Revolution: Past and Present’ conference, March 31, 2012)

In 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent England’s national military overseas to wrest from Argentina ownership over the largely insignificant Falkland Islands, and, with her population distracted by wartime nationalist sentiment, imposed drastic neo-liberal structural adjustments upon England’s economy. Two years later, when the miners’ trade union called a widespread strike to protest the disastrous effects of market deregulation upon the working class, Thatcher’s response combined strike breakers, informants, infiltrators and police brutality with all the gusto of a military operation, and she justified her crackdown with the now-infamous saying- “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty” (Wilenius).

In every country touched by the Arab Spring, the national military is called away from its traditional defense of the country’s borders against the ‘enemy without’, and deployed on the streets, alongside the national police force, to crush the ‘enemy within’. This peculiar contradiction- that an armed body, whose supposed purpose is to protect the freedoms of its people, is suddenly pitted against the democratic will of the people in a life-or-death struggle- exposes, behind its veil of patriotic nationalism, the true function of the army as an instrument of class warfare, integral to the solidity of the hegemonic fabric of the nation-state. This torsion in the body of the armed forces- from national borders to city streets, from national bodyguard to public enemy- echoes and reflects the trembling fault lines of a more fundamental political confrontation between the entrenched authority of the State and a popular uprising which asserts a new political voice, and confirms the assertion of Mao Zedong, found in the Little Red Book, that “according to the Marxist theory of the State, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.”

The army’s authority over the general public, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is ultimately autonomous of the whims or commands of the executive sovereign. Whether it decides to suppress or to support the popular uprising- whether it stands beside, or turns against, the country’s dictator- the national military in each case yields an exceptional monopoly of force, extending, under the banner of martial law, above and beyond the executive sovereign, to seize and determine the articulated contours of the balance of power that popular protest seeks to re-negotiate. Thus on November 19, 2011, a day when more than 400 military troops defected from Yemen’s Republican Guard, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, anxious, in the face of fragmenting national loyalties, to ward off a military coup, visited, along with senior government officials, thousands of stationed Republican Guard troops, assuring the soldiers that the country’s leaders are “willing to sacrifice [themselves] for the sake of the country, but you will stay. You will remain here even if we let go of authority because you are the authority…Yemen will not collapse. Yemen is steadfast due to its people and military” (Almasmari).

Faced with variegated torrents of popular unrest, the national military, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is entrusted, as much by the particular commands of their dictator as by the general interests of the international community, with the stabilizing role of maintaining order in the midst of chaos, protecting citizens from the security vacuum, and preserving public and private property relations within their country. Should the dictator’s regime crumble, a transitional military government is then charged, in the November 2011 words of Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, with the crucial task of “‘holding the stick in the middle’” so as to “balance emerging political currents and social forces”, and assuring, through the gradual withering away of military rule, an “orderly transition” into a secure, democratic process. However, as the Second Egyptian Revolution demonstrates, behind the transitional military regime’s facade of disinterested, democratic preservation of the functions of administrative governmentality, there often lurk the familiar puppet-strings of the old regime, which mask in turn the imperial interests of global capital.

In the final instance, the success or failure of each Arab Spring revolution hinges on the political mood of the army. In Tunisia, it was not the widespread strikes and demonstrations that ultimately forced 24-year dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign on January 14, but the refusal, a day earlier, of Army Chief Rachid Ammar to obey Ben Ali’s orders to shoot civilian protesters. In Egypt, when dictator Hosni Mubarak, amidst mounting tensions and rumours of a military coup, left without comment for his home by the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik on February 11, appointing military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as prime minister in his place, protesters, who throughout much of the 18-day revolution were protected from riot police violence by army forces, celebrated side by side with military soldiers on the streets of Cairo, chanting ‘The Army and the People are One Hand’. As long as he has the backing of the armed forces, the dictator’s seat is secure. Without the strong arm of the military, he finds himself powerless and empty-handed.

In his history of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who led the insurrectionist Bolshevik Red Army through both its overthrow of Tsarist dictatorship and its establishment of a post-revolutionary military regime, speaks of this centrality of the political mood of the army to the revolutionary process, calling it

that great unknown of every revolution…[which] can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people…the mass of the army will be swayed in favor of the revolutionary class only when it is convinced that this class is not merely demonstrating or protesting, but is actually fighting for power and has a chance of winning…only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle- not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it- does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over’ to the side of the people.

At a certain tipping point in the ‘clash between the soldiers and the people’, when the latter made irrevocably clear their demand, not for reform, but for fundamental regime change, the military commanders of Egypt and Tunisia, inspired by a mixture of sympathetic identification with the protesters and their own desire for power, decided to facilitate this regime change, to complete rather than to resist, to co-opt rather than to combat, to translate and transubstantiate the passions of the uprising into the foundation of their own military regime. On the other hand, the uprisings in countries such as  Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain split the army’s allegiance along tribal, religious and economic fault lines, plunging the country, torn between the preservation of the old and the destructive creation of the new regime, into total civil war.

While many troops, officers and entire regiments of each country’s armed forces deserted their dictator and created organizations, such as the Free Syrian Army or Libya’s National Liberation Army, dedicated to revolutionary regime change, many other segments of national armies remained loyal to their ruler, anxious to preserve their favored position in long-entrenched relations of economic, political or tribal dominance. In these cases, the tension between those forces that seek to perpetuate, and those that seek to supersede, the old regime’s monopoly on power, degenerates into a struggle over power itself, where the fission of the once-unitary armed forces replicates, and re-articulates itself over, the battle contours of  the greater societal rupture. Trotsky outlines this chaotic process-

The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army…Guerrilla fighting on the basis of a revolutionary strike cannot in itself lead to victory. But it creates the possibility of sounding the mood of the army, and after a first important victory- that is, once a part of the garrison has joined the insurrection- the guerrilla struggle can be transformed into a mass struggle in which a part of the troops, supported by the armed and unarmed population, will fight another part, which will find itself in a ring of universal hatred…when the class, moral, and political heterogeneity of the army causes troops to cross over to the side of the people, this must, in the first instance, mean a struggle between two opposing camps within the army….thus an insurrection is, in essence, not so much a struggle against the army as a struggle for the army.

If, in these cases, the fabric of society is further rent by a national army fallen short of a complete ‘crossing over to the camp of the revolution’ and unable to effect a full upheaval of the old regime, then surely the ripping-away of dictatorial rule, and the restitution of social cohesiveness by a transitional military regime, in early-2011 Egypt and Tunisia represents the successful fulfillment of this process. The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011, in contrast, offers the unique and paradoxical instance of a popular revolutionary impulse that, after first toppling a dictator, re-turns against the transitional military regime that stepped in to fill the power vacuum, raising its fist anew against the very army with which it used to declare itself united as ‘one hand’. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, realized those protesters who returned to Tahrir Square, did not ‘cross over to the camp of the revolution’ as part of any ‘moral process’, but to maintain the oppressive structures of the old regime. Here, the enemy is no mere dictator; rather, long-entrenched dictatorial rule is peeled away, to reveal a teeming underbelly of long-cultivated, institutionalized hegemony atop which such dictatorial rule was mere surface puppetry. The revolutionary impulse thereby re-articulates itself in a purer and finer expression, directed not merely against the Master-Signifier who sits as sovereign atop the chain of power, but against the hegemonic system in its entirety, a system in which the national army shows itself to be intrinsically embedded.

To understand that military-political hegemonic nexus against which the  Second Egyptian Revolution struggles- a timely task of vital importance for any revolutionary praxis seeking to trace the contemporary contours of global Empire- we must examine the historical genesis of the Egyptian Army in the context of the power structures of the Egyptian nation-state. Like most post-imperial Third World nation-states, Egypt won its freedom of self-determination through military struggle. Since 1952, when the nationalist, pan-Arabic, anti-imperialist Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officer’s Movement in a military coup against King Farouk’s Britain-backed regime, the Egyptian army has been firmly inscribed in the pride of the origin, indissolubly wed to the fabric of the body politic, secure in its national role as founder and guarantor of the independent, modern Egypt. Until the mid-1970s, the Egyptian military was the strongest institution in a nation that, up to the present day, has seen all its presidents, and many cabinet and senior governmental representatives, descend from military officer ranks.

LTC Stephen H. Gotowicki of the U.S. Army, in his 1994 paper ‘The Role of the Egyptian Military in Domestic Society’, explains that “as Egypt has democratized, the Egyptian military’s involvement in matters of national politics has declined, as has its direct involvement in matters of state”, while “at the same time, its involvement in Egypt’s national life and economy has expanded.” Beginning in the late 1970s, the Egyptian military, descending from the political into the civic sector, gained control of anywhere from 10 to 40% of the economy through heavy investments in burgeoning security, defense and civilian industries,  national infrastructure, and agricultural production, and proved itself to epitomize what MIT Comparative Politics professor Lucian Pye, in his 1961 essay ‘Armies in the Process of Political Modernization’, called the natural role of a modern military establishment- to come “as close as any human organization can to the ideal type for an industrialized and secularized enterprise”.

This domesticization and corporatization of the Egyptian military, says opinion columnist Walter Armbrust In a February 24 piece for Al-Jazeera entitled ‘A Revolution Against Neoliberalism?’, went hand in hand with the “crony capitalism of the Mubarak era”, where the “unfettering of markets and an agenda of privatization”, though considered by the developed world “to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East” and “lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success”, exacerbated Egypt’s structural and systematic inequalities, and brought to its population “stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation”, widespread unemployment, the fierce suppression of organized labor, and the gutting of “the public education and the health care system…by a combination of neglect and privatization”. As the Egyptian population suffered, military commanders were awarded lucrative positions at the head of major national corporations and important seats  in the higher echelons of government administration, occupying a central decision-making role in the corporate-political nexus.

Elizabeth Jelin, in her essay ‘Memories of State Violence: The Past in the Present’, traces a similar institutionalization of the armed forces in the developmentalist military juntas that ruled the Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina throughout the 60s and 70s. After seizing power, these transitional military regimes “stressed their ‘heroic’ role, as…eternal defenders of the fatherland…and the ultimate guarantors of the continuity of the nation”. Later, transitions into civilian governments from the 1980s onwards “involved the retreat of the military, and thus their Salvationist discourse lost ground (perhaps with the partial exception of Chile). The military receded into their own institutional spaces, to reaffirm their identities and justifications there”.

Like the post-revolutionary neoliberal dictatorships of the Southern Cone, Mubarak’s Egypt, along with its army, became a regional favorite, not only of the IMF, but of the U.S., from whom it received, second only to Israel, over $1.3 billion dollars of aid annually. In 2008, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone favorably described both dictator Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi- leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a close friend of Mubarak and Egypt’s Defense Minister since 1991- as men “focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time”, who “simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently” (CBC News). Since the 1970s, domestic corporate, military and dictatorial power structures, intermingled with global imperial interests, have come to striate the Egyptian body politic as indissoluble, metonymic links of a diffuse chain of hegemony.

Doctoral researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group Keonraad Bogaert, in an essay entitled ‘Global Dimensions of the Arab Spring and the Potential for Anti-Hegemonic Politics’,  links this trend in Egypt to the deepening neoliberal reforms of the larger Arab world.

Neoliberal politics in the Arab region meant an attack on the achievements of the developmental state that experienced its heyday in the 1950s and the 1960s…the systematic rollback of the developmental state through structural adjustments, austerity measures, and privatization meant that the middle and labor classes in the Arab region came increasingly under pressure, mainly due to the cutback of income redistribution mechanisms and rising job insecurity…these neoliberal reforms were at the basis of the motivations of ordinary people to come out into the streets en masse in 2011 and overthrow authoritarian leaders…what started in Tunisia has now created space on a global scale to question and contest neoliberal hegemony.

The evolution of the modern Egyptian nation-state, characterized by the deepening interpenetration of Egypt’s military into its civil and economic sectors, can be read as a metaphor for the modernization process of developing countries worldwide during a 20th century in which, as Paul Virilio says in Speed and Politics, “history progresse[d] at the speed of its weapons systems”. As the military-industrial complex became the driving socio-economic engine of development and self-determination for a nation-state fabric rife with military coups, the armies of developing nations, possessing an  organizational structure sufficiently capable to conduct the affairs of state, manage national projects and resolve political chaos, spurred on the process of national modernization at the political, civic and economic levels.

The army of the developing nation-state enforced and maintained sovereignty through a sometimes-deployed, but always-threatened, monopoly over the unilateral use of violence, inscribing upon the body politic the spectral fist of martial law epitomized in the dictum of Carl Schmitt- ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. This omnipresent state of emergency, effective in Egypt since 1967, served the interests of developing and developed nation-states with equal efficiency, and proved itself, as Irish scholar and human rights advocate John Reynolds says in his essay Emergency, Governmentality and The Arab Spring, to be “a constant presence through shifting contextual sands of Third World liberation movements and decolonisation, ideological Cold War totalitarianism, military dictatorships, separatist conflicts, economic shock policies and national security doctrine”.

As Woodrow Wilson said in The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics, “the authority of all governors, directly or indirectly, rests in all cases ultimately on force…government, in its last analysis, is organized force.” Throughout the modernization process of First, Second and Third World countries alike, the national army and police force, as the backbone and guarantor of the law-making and law-preserving violence proper to the state, helped guard, gird and facilitate the growth of what Michel Foucault called ‘governmentality’- a “triangle- sovereignty, discipline, government- which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security”, an “ensemble…formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of [a] very specific albeit complex form of power”. The weaving of the political, economic and military web of globalized governmentality into a rosary of First, Second and Third World countries proceeded, throughout the last 150 years of the nation-state world system, not evenly and equitably, but through the dominance of the First over the Third World, a dominance exercised- first through political imperialism, and then through its surrogate, economic neoliberalism- in the name of global capital.

For capital, the army and the state-form are inseparable, and developed of necessity alongside each other. Friedrich Engels, in his 1884 treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, emphasizes that a decaying pre-capitalist feudal social body, already striated by irreconcilable class antagonisms, could not possibly accommodate a freely self-acting, self-organized and self-armed population without such a population annihilating itself in open class warfare. The capitalist state, therefore, secures its hegemony through “the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organizing itself as an armed force”, a public power which “exists in every state” and “consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile [clan] society knew nothing”.

In his 1917 State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin develops Engels’ concept of a “special, public” state power, which through the  “development, perfection, and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus…arose from society but place[d] itself above it and alienate[d] itself more and more from it” as a surplus of striated control, an institutionalized and normalized parasite. “Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine,” says Lenin, “are the bureaucracy and the standing army”, and the bourgeoisie are connected with these institutions “by thousands of threads”.

Secured by the national army’s monopoly over lawmaking and -preserving violence, this administrative apparatus of capture was able not only to guard and expand physical territory but also to foster national pride, all the while encasing and nurturing, within the body of the State, the budding mechanisms of capital accumulation. As Opello and Rosow explain in ‘The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics’,

the organizational and technological innovations in warfare during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave a war-making advantage to the form of politico-military rule that had access to large volumes of men (for soldiers)…capital (money to pay, equip, and arm them)…[and] a coherent collective identity (i.e., a sense of nationhood) that overrode regional, class, and tribal loyalties.

Out of the soil of the economic and bureaucratic structures of capitalist accumulation and technological modernization, arose the gleaming image of a strong, proud and loyal army as sign, seal and signet of national identity, a rigidly organized, bureaucratic, hierarchical microcosm, within the State, of the ordered beauty of the State-form itself. Hans Von Seeckt, military officer and organizer of the Reichswehr-the Weimar-era German Army which, through the suppression of Spartacist Bolshevism and the fusion of the country’s military and civilian sectors into a totalitarian military state, formed, according to volume 3 of Purnell’s monumental History of the Twentieth Century, “the only consistent bedrock element on, and above all behind, the German political scene” after the devastation of the First World War- expresses this nationalist military ideal with his guiding principle that “the Army should become a State within the State, but it should be merged in the State through service; in fact it should become the purest image of the State’” (Finer). This transcendental perch befits an army which, in a revolutionary crisis, returns to the barracks when it has successfully secured public order, an army which, in the words of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, conservative Prime Minister and dictator of colonialist Portugal from 1932 to 1968, “lives apart from politics, subjected to a hierarchy and discipline, serene and firm as a guarantee of public order and national security” (Finer).

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has manipulated popular motifs of a nationalist, a-political and civically responsible standing army as a means to consolidate imperial, neoliberal and, ultimately, dictatorial hegemony over the will of the Egyptian people. For example, on February 14, two days after the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in response to a general strike held by thousands of state employees demanding better pay and conditions, re-imposed martial law and issued a statement urging all citizens, in the interests of “the legitimate demands [of the people] for a true democratic environment…[to] work together to stabilize the country” and to end strikes and protests that, blocking the “positive progress and the efforts of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to realize the ambitions and aspirations of the people”, were “harming national security by disturbing all the institutions and the agencies…[of the] production and operations” of the state. This marked the first divergence of interests between SCAF and the revolting people, and the latter would soon realize that, far from intending to facilitate a ‘civil democratic process’, the military junta, like Mubarak’s regime, would not hesitate, in the words of Egyptian-American Cairo-based activist Sarah Hawas, to “rapidly devolve” Egyptian society “into a hotbed of naked fascism” under “the deafening silence of the international ‘community’ that continues to tolerate- indeed, goes out of its way to legitimize– the status quo”.

The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011 shows that the myth of a benevolent, politically neutral military force is shattered when the army is deployed, not on the borders of the people it is sworn to protect, but on the city streets to suppress the resistance of a broad-based, rhizomatic body of citizens united against the sovereign power of ruler and regime alike. Where once the emperor’s army stood proudly before their people in royal battle garb, here what Lenin calls “the naked class struggle” becomes clear as day, as “the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it”, and “the oppressed class strives to create a new organization…capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters”.

Against an oppressive apparatus of governmentality indistinguishable from neo-imperial hegemony; against the unilateral re-instatement of a three-decades old martial law which the military junta had promised to abolish; against, in the December 22, 2011 words of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, “a state which has looted and stolen from the poor to increase the wealth of the rich…a state for whom the power of capital is more important than the authority of the judiciary”- against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Second Egyptian Revolution is, in the final instance, a revolution against neoliberalism as such. Herein can be found the universal value of an uprising that, bringing the domestic politics of Egypt to their logical conclusion, reaches beyond national borders and challenges a global fabric of power. The international hegemonic apparatus of late capitalism, in the face of the worldwide Arab Spring and Occupy movements, takes on the variegated forms of fascist dictatorship and repressive military-police apparatus, struggling to maintain its hold on power as the human multitude awakens.

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