Reading Marx in Cairo By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

29 July 2013 — Asia Times

“Every giant presupposes a dwarf … Caesar the hero leaves behind him the play-acting Octavianus.” – Karl Marx

When Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, called on his supporters to show their solidarity with the army on Friday (July 26), the 57th anniversary of nationalization of the Suez Canal by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, this author’s instinct reaction was to re-read Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon for the sake of historical analogy. [1] 

In Marx’s book we find a timeless grasp of farcical repetitions in history, by comparing the French coup of December 1851 by a nephew of the great Napoleon who, even though he lacked the minutest genius of his uncle, called himself Emperor Napoleon III. From Marx’s point of view, the 1851 coup was a caricature of Napoleon’s coup of 1799, above all due to the “grotesque mediocrity” of the nephew. 

In comparison, Sisi, whose ruthless snipers massacred dozens of demonstrators in Cairo and other cities in cold blood on Friday, is not even a pale replica of the pan-Arabist Nasser who ended the 72-year British domination of Egypt and thus became a hero of post-World War II anti-colonialism. Rather, Sisi increasingly resembles another Augusto Pinochet, much like what Marx’s comrade-in arms, Friedrich Engles, wrote of Napoleon III as “the little corporal and his band of marshals”. 

Since President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow on July 3, Egypt’s new emperor Sisi has descended the path of brutal dictators, showing little or no mercy to his opponents, and giving clumsy speeches about “confronting terrorism” as a lame excuse to unleash his rein of terror on a large section of the population that opposes the coup. 

Ironically, Sisi wants to have it both ways: to earn legitimacy by linking himself with Nasser’s proud legacy while at the same time attacking the deposed president Morsi for doing precisely what Nasser did in the mid-1950s: that is, promulgating a new constitution that largely monopolized power in his authoritarian hands. 

There is no mistaking the fact that Sisi and his co-conspirators miscalculated the scope of popular opposition to the sudden coup that was tacitly approved by Washington, in light of United States President Barack Obama’s decision to refrain from labeling the military takeover a “coup”, failing to take any step to prevent it ,and then without a moment’s hesitation announcing it would be business as usual for the continuation of aid and arms sales to Egypt. 

“We are not legally required to call it a coup or not,” a US government spokesperson stated, a dubious position that makes a mockery of US law and its legal and ethical responsibility. [2] US law explicitly forbids aid to coup-ridden countries and making an exception to that rule is clearly an unhealthy development that does not bode well for the future of US-Arab world relations. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who failed to make as much as one phone call to the Cairo generals on the US payroll to discourage their coup, is now bemoaning Egypt “on the brink” and urging all parties to step back. 

This is inept diplomacy, driven by the old imperial habit of control and domination that, for sure, could no longer be taken for granted as long as Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood was in power. Little wonder, then, that the most frequently used excuse by US after the coup was “stability” in a geostrategically important country, reflecting the imperial hubris of miscalculating the popular will and antipathy to the coup among many Egyptians outside the Brotherhood. As a result, the Brotherhood-led coalition against the coup is actually getting stronger as a reaction to the sheer force of the repression unleashed by Sisi, who has the misfortune of lacking the Nasserite intellectual horizon which was foreign-focused and thus acted according to an internal dialectic of Egyptian history. 

This pseudo-Nasser, all consumed by enemies within, is operating as a force of social disunity and discord, thus guaranteeing a doomed result. The secular nationalist and liberal forces that back him are bound to lose legitimacy by mere association with Cairo’s new Pinochet, whose call for “national unity” is now drowned in the Nile. At this stage, what the future holds for Egypt is unclear, yet Sisi’s place along the list of farcical leaders in Marx’s narrative is already a sealed fate. “Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle,” Marx wrote, and the same caricature is apt in the circumstances of the latest edition of thinly disguised military rule in Egypt. 

1. See here
2. See Afrasiabi 

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations (CreateSpace, November 12, 2011). 

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.)

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