Jul 4 :Egypt, Brazil, Turkey: Without Politics, Protest Is At The Mercy Of The Elites

July 5, 2013


Egypt, Brazil, Turkey: Without Politics, Protest Is At The Mercy Of The Elites
By Seumas Milne

Two years after the Arab uprisings fuelled a wave of protests and
occupations across the world, mass demonstrations have returned to
their crucible in Egypt. Just as millions braved brutal repression in
2011 to topple the western-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, millions
have now taken to the streets of Egyptian cities to demand the ousting
of the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

As in 2011, the opposition is a middle-class-dominated alliance of
left and right. But this time the Islamists are on the other side
while supporters of the Mubarak regime are in the thick of it. The
police, who beat and killed protesters two years ago, this week stood
aside as demonstrators torched Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood offices. And
the army, which backed the dictatorship until the last moment before
forming a junta in 2011, has now thrown its weight behind the

Whether its ultimatum to the president turns into a full-blown coup or
a managed change of government, the army – lavishly funded and trained
by the US government and in control of extensive commercial interests
– is back in the saddle. And many self-proclaimed revolutionaries who
previously denounced Morsi for kowtowing to the military are now
cheering it on. On past experience, they’ll come to regret it.

The protesters have no shortage of grievances against Morsi’s year-old
government, of course: from the dire state of the economy,
constitutional Islamisation and institutional power grabs to its
failure to break with Mubarak’s neoliberal policies and appeasement of
US and Israeli power.

But the reality is, however incompetent Morsi’s administration, many
key levers of power – from the judiciary and police to the military
and media – are effectively still in the hands of the old regime
elites. They openly regard the Muslim Brotherhood as illegitimate
interlopers, whose leaders should be returned to prison as soon as

Yet these are the people now in alliance with opposition forces who
genuinely want to see Egypt’s revolution brought at least to a
democratic conclusion. If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are forced
from office, it’s hard to see such people breaking with neoliberal
orthodoxy or asserting national independence, as most Egyptians want.
Instead, the likelihood is that the Islamists, also with mass support,
will resist being denied their democratic mandate, plunging Egypt into
deeper conflict.

Egypt’s latest eruption has immediately followed mass protests in
Turkey and Brazil (as well as smaller upheavals in Bulgaria and
Indonesia). None has mirrored the all-out struggle for power in Egypt,
even if some demonstrators in Turkey called for the prime minister,
Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, to go. But there are significant echoes that
highlight both the power and weakness of such flash demonstrations of
popular anger.

In the case of Turkey, what began as a protest against the
redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park mushroomed into mass
demonstrations against Erdo?an, ‘s increasingly assertive Islamist
administration, bringing together Turkish and Kurdish nationalists,
liberals and leftists, socialists and free-marketeers. The breadth was
a strength, but the disparate nature of the protesters’ demands is
likely to weaken its political impact.

In Brazil, mass demonstrations against bus and train fare increases
turned into wider protests about poor public services and the
exorbitant cost of next year’s World Cup. As in Turkey and Egypt,
middle-class and politically footloose youth were at the forefront,
and political parties were discouraged from taking part, while
rightwing groups and media tried to steer the agenda from inequality
to tax cuts and corruption.

Brazil’s centre-left government has lifted millions out of poverty,
and the protests have been driven by rising expectations. But unlike
elsewhere in Latin America, the Lula government never broke with
neoliberal orthodoxy or attacked the interests of the rich elite. His
successor, Dilma Rousseff – who responded to the protests by pledging
huge investments in transport, health and education and a referendum
on political reform – now has the chance to change that.

Despite their differences, all three movements have striking common
features. They combine widely divergent political groups and
contradictory demands, along with the depoliticised, and lack a
coherent organisational base. That can be an advantage for
single-issue campaigns, but can lead to short-lived shallowness if the
aims are more ambitious – which has arguably been the fate of the
Occupy movement.

All of them have, of course, been heavily influenced and shaped by
social media and the spontaneous networks they foster. But there are
plenty of historical precedents for such people power protests – and
important lessons about why they are often derailed or lead to very
different outcomes from those their protagonists hoped for.

The most obvious are the European revolutions of 1848, which were also
led by middle-class reformers and offered the promise of a democratic
spring, but had as good as collapsed within a year. The tumultuous
Paris upheaval of May 1968 was followed by the electoral victory of
the French right. Those who marched for democratic socialism in east
Berlin in 1989 ended up with mass privatisation and unemployment. The
western-sponsored colour revolutions of the last decade used
protesters as a stage army for the transfer of power to favoured
oligarchs and elites. The indignados movement against austerity in
Spain was powerless to prevent the return of the right and a plunge
into even deeper austerity.

In the era of neoliberalism, when the ruling elite has hollowed out
democracy and ensured that whoever you vote for you get the same,
politically inchoate protest movements are bound to flourish. They
have crucial strengths: they can change moods, ditch policies and
topple governments. But without socially rooted organisation and clear
political agendas, they can flare and fizzle, or be vulnerable to
hijacking or diversion by more entrenched and powerful forces.

That also goes for revolutions – and is what appears to be happening
in Egypt. Many activists regard traditional political parties and
movements as redundant in the internet age. But that’s an argument for
new forms of political and social organisation. Without it, the elites
will keep control – however spectacular the protests.