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Egyptian uprising: revolution or a US-inspired coup?

Perwez Shafi

The prerequisites for large-scale social change in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle Eastern and North African countries have existed for several decades. Finally there is a movement for change as the masses have gradually shed their psychological fear. The entire Arab world, conceived and carved up by the US and the West during World Wars I and II, is shaking to its foundation by the rage of the Muslim masses who desire to get rid of the US- and Western-imposed dictators-for-life and their political systems. It was a remarkable sight to witness the courageous Egyptian youth and masses drive the most powerful US-backed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, from power in 18 days. He seemed invincible three weeks earlier. The US, whose own survival depends upon exploitation of the Muslim world’s resources and military bases, is busy with intrigues and shadowy maneuvers to tame the uprising from turning into a full-blown revolution.

Mass Politics

Finally the Age of Mass Politics — a term borrowed from social sciences — has dawned in the Middle East. Until now, dictatorial elites and their cronies in collusion with Western elites conducted all political, economic and social activities. Finally the tired and deprived masses are taking control of their lives, rejecting elite politics and entering the period of mass politics.

Until about 200 years ago, the world population was less than a billion and poverty-stricken people lived almost entirely in the rural areas where population density was very thin. The feudal, capitalist and political elites made all the decisions, naturally to benefit themselves. The masses were dispersed, weak and unable to overcome their exploitation and oppression. Large mass protests were virtually unheard of. As small villages and cities became centers of commercial and technological activities, populations began shifting from rural to urban areas transforming them into big cities that in turn became large population centers. For the first time the masses became conscious of large numbers concentrated in one place and found strength and political power in large gatherings.

Peasants and workers used their large numbers for concerted social action to change and improve their condition, destiny and balance of political power against the feudal lords and capitalists. Large protests and demonstrations help individuals shed their psychological fear and challenge repressive power of the state and the authorities. Western history has witnessed and launched numerous mass movements for limited goals, depending upon the particular class that launched it, as well as few partial and material revolutions against oppression and exploitation by kings and feudals in the West. The dictatorial and capitalist states that used to have no fear of small poverty-stricken populations suddenly discovered they were unable to cope with mass political action. No nation-state had enough coercive power to withstand the power of the masses determined to resist exploitation and oppression.

Although a number of Muslim nation-states all over the world had witnessed mass movements, whether truly independent or elite-directed, in South Asia, Iran, Turkey and Southeast Asia, the phenomenon of mass politics by and large bypassed the Islamic East, particularly the Arabian and North African nation-states with the exception of Palestine. The Western-supported Arabian kings and despots were able to rule for life through coercion and oppression. With the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and their ripple effect spreading to Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Muslim masses of the Arab world have finally discovered their power in numbers. Large-scale social change is being conceived by overcoming psychological fear and big cities with huge populations are turning into centers of uprising and eventually revolution.

Weaknesses in the uprisings

From the colonial to the neo-colonial period, the West had two overall motives in propping up lifetime dictators: to keep these nation-states integrated within the global capitalist-world so that loot and plunder becomes systemic in nature, and to suppress Islam in order to eliminate it as an ideology. Thus, there is symbiotic relationship between domestic illegitimacy and Western imperialism. The declining West’s survival depends upon exploitation of the Muslim world’s resources. In addition, suppressing Islam leaves Muslims dysfunctional, robbed of their Islamic worldview, and cut off from religious leadership, that is allowed to play only electoral politics but unable to serve the masses by offering an Islamic vision to guide them toward an Islamic revolution. Thus there are a number of weaknesses in the revolutionary energy of the masses.

Ideals invoked

All these weaknesses were visible before and during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Because of plunder by the domestic illegitimate dictatorships propped up by Western imperialism, the Muslim masses though highly educated were reduced to demanding jobs due to high unemployment and low-cost food items. Beside material improvement, robbing them of their Islamic worldview has left them demanding multi-party democracy. Instead of dealing with the dictatorship of one man, in a multi-party democracy, the US job will become a little more sophisticated and somewhat difficult because now there are more players and organizations on its payroll. Nevertheless, the US and Western nations had already developed much expertise during the last 200 years to defraud and exploit the masses through democracy worldwide.

The limit of Egyptian revolutionary dreams already exists in the form of Pakistan. It has multi-party “democracy”, with on and off elections, hundreds of irrelevant political parties (the only difference being their overall cover or the robes they wear masquerading as communist or Islamic), and thousands of organizations divided along linguistic, sectarian, geographical, and nationalistic basis. People are similarly divided. The military and spy agencies determine the “national interest” as to who is foe or friend and pursue domestic and foreign policies accordingly under the West’s overall hegemony. The US has no problem in managing Pakistani “democracy” as all players and institutions are under its firm grip. All the conditions are ripe for a genuine revolution in Pakistan. Maybe the Tunisian and Egyptian masses will find this out in another 15 to 20 years and at that point may decide to have a full revolution.

Secular youth demanding jobs

The Western media and governments are emphasizing the character of the youth movement as “secular”, demanding jobs and needing improvement in material conditions only. The use of the internet (Facebook and Twitter) is highlighted as proof implying that only secular people use such informational technologies. These conclusions could be misleading and part of propaganda campaign to restrict and define the implication of change to upholding democratic ideals and reassure the Western masses that this uprising has nothing to do with Islam or the Islamic culture of the masses.

Although Islam is suppressed, often violently, it must be borne in mind that the Egyptian masses had adopted Islam centuries ago and it forms a part of their culture. Now that Hosni Mubarak is gone and the security apparatus is on the defensive, it may not resort to violent methods to suppress Islam. Thus the process of revolutionary constituency building and Islamic conscientizing may proceed at a quicker pace as Muslims become more attuned to what is at stake: continued Western hegemony through the façade of a democratic order or real freedom through an Islamic Revolution.

Change of faces

When confronted by an uprising against its puppet, the US’s first option is to change faces. In Egypt, the plan was to replace the hated dictator Mubarak with Vice President Omar Suleiman, his trusted Intelligence Chief, to pacify the protesters. Failing that, the Egyptian military was asked to take over. The poor and oppressed masses, robbed of basic necessities of life, lacking leadership, deprived of Islamic vision, and demanding no more than jobs and decent living conditions, made the US job easier. To sacrifice the dictator who was close to expiration of his shelf life anyway, to save the regime and the corrupt system that benefits the US all fits into the mantra of having no permanent loyalties, only permanent interests. Thus only two to three days into the protests, the US started demanding Mubarak’s departure in a “managed change”. The US has done that in a number of places: with Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines (1986), General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan (2008), and Ben Ali of Tunisia in 2011. Cycling of dictators to save the US dominated system is an old technique of imperialism to perpetuate itself.

Lack of military violence

Another aspect of the Egyptian uprising was the absence of violence by the military against unarmed masses to crush their aspirations. Since the uprising began, the military has projected an image of friendliness toward the masses in Tahrir Square. It was the hated police, ruling party goons and paramilitary forces that committed atrocities against innocent civilians.

In contrast, during the Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1978–1979) the US authorities starting with President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezezinski, all constantly urged the Shah, his military machine and the oppressive security agency SAVAK to kill as many civilians as possible to bring the rest into submission. During the year-and-a-half of the revolution, they killed nearly 80,000 unarmed civilians. This deepened hatred of the US and crystallized into an uncompromising stand of the new revolutionary government.

During the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the US avoided deepening the hatred of the masses to secure its long-term interests. From the first day, Washington warned its pet dictators not to resort to violence against the “unarmed, peaceful” protesters and promised to reform the system to earn their goodwill. Consequently, the military and the US were not viewed as villain. This was precisely part of the US-managed “change” by restraining the military. This happened because the US has been providing equipment and training to the Egyptian army and paying $1.3 billion annually to buy its loyalty. Due to this deep structural relationship it was in the mutual interest of the Egyptian military as well as the US to appear to be on the side of the masses.

Military coup

A dictator is fully supported until he can no longer stand against the masses at which point the military normally installs a “new face” to replace the old crony. If this recycling does not work, the US then signals the military to stage a coup. In “managed change”, military coup is the chief instrument available to imperialism to save the corrupt system. The military is allowed to dominate every aspect of the economy and to become the biggest beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth. This is what happened in Egypt where huge social change “managed” by the US was limited to an uprising, thwarting the potential revolution by sacrificing the dictator and asking the army to take complete power in a coup, albeit “for the sake” of people.

When the Islamic Revolution in Iran was nearing victory, the Shah and his cronies started thinking of fleeing. The US urged the senior generals, who were in the forefront of killing the people, to stay put and keep the military organized. Brezezinski, impatient and dissatisfied with the Shah’s level of violence and repression, told him the US would not oppose the formation of a military government, that is, a coup. Even when the Shah had already fled the country and the Islamic Revolution was almost an accomplished fact, Carter sent General Robert Huyser to Tehran to report on the state of readiness and cohesiveness of the Iranian military, to unify the generals behind the Shah-installed Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiyar, with a military coup as final option.

In a coup, the military tactic is to earn the sympathies of the masses by accepting most of their grievances and demands and promise to fulfill them within a few months. The military interest is to keep their supreme position as decision-maker and arbitrator even in a democracy, retain their perks and benefits and align with global imperialism. But due to a clash of interests, differences emerge on timing and the depth of reform program.

The Egyptian masses realize that their mission is not complete yet. To keep pressure on the military to fulfill their promises, quarter of a million people gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday February 18 — a week after Mubarak’s downfall — to pray and celebrate the “Friday of Victory and Continuation,” a name reflecting both their pride in overthrowing the dictator and realization that revolution is not complete yet and much remains to be done. Influential Egyptian ‘alim Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi led the Friday prayer, hailing the uprising and saying: “the illegitimate can never defeat the truth.” Then added: “The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt.”

Failure of Islamic orthodoxy & political party approach

It is well known that the uprising was planned and organized by the Egyptian youth who displayed great courage and commitment to face the repressive orer. The leadership, especially Islamic, was glaringly absent. It is even more ironic that Cairo — the seat of Sunni orthodoxy at al-Azhar — is still has not come out of its political coma, going now for nearly 200 years. They are out of touch with the masses, splitting hairs in their seminaries, unable to even understand the intrigues and machinations of Western imperialism much less to lead and resist it, and failed to offer a vision to Muslims. If in the last 1,000 years, Sunni orthodoxy has failed to produce revolutionary Islamic leadership, how “democracy” will be able to produce it, is the billion dollar question.

That failure was compounded by the Islamic political party approach within a “democratic” neo-colonial system. Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon now has nothing to show for gaining a few seats in elections under the dictatorship except to confer legitimacy on an illegitimate political system since the 1960s. The Ikhwan leadership became too cozy and complacent by participating in fraudulent electoral politics under which it guaranteed itself defeat and humiliation.

Thus, after 50 years when the masses were ready for a revolution, both the Sunni orthodoxy and the Ikhwan were almost irrelevant and unable to articulate and guide Muslim revolutionary energy. In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e Islami and other Islamic political parties, also work comfortably within the illegitimate, corrupt and secular liberal-democratic order making transitory coalitions with the most corrupt and immoral parties in the hope of winning elections. But they justify their participation by declaring the constitution as “Islamic” and, therefore, no need for a “bloody” and “chaotic” revolutionary struggle.

Al-Qaida approach vs. the masses

Another interesting feature of the Egyptian uprising is that during the 1990s, al-Qaida indulged in much violence and guerrilla warfare to topple the Mubarak regime. Al-Qaida’s No. 2 man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian who led the fight against the regime. Much bloodshed and chaos ensued but their sacrifices over many did not dislodge Mubarak and failed to dent the regime’s coercive power. This was a failure to understand the potential revolutionary energy of the masses and their role in revolutionary struggle.

In contrast, peaceful and unarmed protesters got together only for 18 days and drove the dictator out. Since then al-Qaida has been quiet. Even before that, the Muslim masses widely believed these organizations were in some way US puppets and exist only to provoke and justify US intervention in areas around the globe where imperial interests are at stake. Thus to achieve change in Muslim societies the masses have correctly rejected both the path of violence that is not a substitute for revolution, and the religious political party approach in a neo-colonial order as immoral that cannot give birth to a moral entity. In other words, Islamic revolutionary approach to restructure Muslim societies is the most moderate not an extremist approach.


The Islamic Revolution in Iran and events of the past couple of months have firmly established that Muslims will judge a political system based on whether it is legitimate or not. An illegitimate system must be resisted and its transformation into a legitimate system by reform or revolutionary means must be sought. Thus any struggle against an illegitimate system will be considered legitimate resistance only if it employs legitimate means to achieve legitimate Islamic goals.

Since the concept of legitimacy is central to revolutionary struggle, it can now be moved from academic to the practical world. The concept of moral legitimacy was defined in my 1993 PhD dissertation: “a political system is considered legitimate, first, when its values, norms and belief system are in harmony with the values, norms and belief system of the people it governs. All political structures and institutions should reflect this consensus on core values. This allows the state to exist and function legitimately and bestows on authorities the right to govern and be accountable.” The scope of “moral legitimacy” deals with such matters as the primary purposes of government; the rights and obligations of the government and the governed; and the methods of selection, change, and accountability of the governing personnel.

A political system consists of three hierarchical levels. At the top are political authorities, then the regime, and at the foundation is the state. Illegitimacy may be limited to political authorities or it could exist in the structure and processes of the entire regime. The worst case is the illegitimacy of the state at the foundational level, making the entire political system illegitimate. In other words, the political system lacks moral and legal legitimacy. A complete mismatch in the value structure of the masses and the elite-state institutions occurs. The two value structures are completely alien, opposite in direction and with their ultimate vision different from each other, it results in constant clash.

Since the entire Muslim world gradually fell under Western colonial yoke and since WWII under neo-colonial yoke, it suffers illegitimacy at all three levels. The very basis of the nation-state is nationalism, which is a form kufr. Every dictator and king has to be evaluated on legitimacy basis. That collective determination has been made long ago, thus the revolutionary struggle becomes not only justified but necessary for the transformation of society from a state of jahiliyah to Islamic consciousness.

The coming weeks and months will determine whether the military will tighten its grip on power by manipulating and using coercive methods to renege on promises, or the masses will succeed by turning the uprising into a full-blown revolution. If the masses had good Islamic revolutionary leadership that would educate and train them, they could have a relatively easier path to achieve revolutionary goals rather than settling for continued Western domination under “fake democracy”.

Only the first phase of the revolution has taken place in the form of a mass uprising resulting in the overthrow of the dictator, a symbol of illegitimacy. The rest will unfold in the coming months. Maybe it is good that the revolution proceeds in stages and at each stage the Western ideology of kufr becomes more exposed. In turn, the masses must be prepared to offer more blood and confront the ensuing chaos as revolutionary spirit and Islamic consciousness conscientizes them to greater depth, ultimately bringing them closer to their goal.

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