Leftists across the nation are terrified about the aftermath of the U.S. election. Whether Donald Trump wins or loses, many are deeply anxious about the possibility of far right white supremacist violence. If Joe Biden wins, many worry he will betray the demands of the Movement for Black Lives and return us to a status quo that disregards the lives of Black people, people of color, immigrants, Indigenous people, working-class people, women, queer and transgender people, and people with disabilities.
As people with roots in the Arab region, including Egypt, we believe that what has happened in Egypt since the revolution of 2011 is useful for thinking about the scenario the left is currently facing here in the U.S.
To be sure, the U.S. and Egypt are distinct places with unique historical and political realities. Yet they both have authoritarian and fascist tendencies. In Egypt, this tendency was consolidated during the militarized counterrevolution after 2013, and in the U.S., around the White House’s endorsement and unleashing of white supremacist violence. Indeed, some of the political factors at play in the U.S. resemble those that led many Egyptians into a state of total despair, including grave political repression, unprecedented poverty and unemployment, sexualized state violence, and the incarceration and torture of dissenters.
Since the revolution of 2011, when 15 million people took to the streets to overthrow their U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians witnessed a transitionary government that betrayed the revolution after promising to see it through; the election of President Mohamad Morsi; and a coup, followed by the election of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2014 (renewed in 2018). Al-Sisi has consolidated an exceptionally violent, highly militarized fascist counterrevolution par excellence.
Here are seven lessons from Egypt that may be useful for the U.S. in the wake of the presidential election.
- Don’t act as though politics are only about elections.
In Egypt, seemingly progressive strands of the regime and conservatives used electoral politics to suppress the revolutionary momentum in the streets. To be sure, elections matter. Yet popular mobilizations in the streets, alongside elections, are both essential to resisting and stopping fascism.
2. Grassroots activists must watch and document electoral violations through a movement infrastructure that is not based in state or nonprofit structures.
Prepare to take legal or other actions in response. In Egypt, before and after the revolution, many activists formed grassroots networks to document electoral violations through the revolution’s various stages. Independent monitoring proved to be critical to processes such as lawsuits or contestations regarding electoral violations. In response, the Egypt government began restricting the monitoring of elections and limiting it only to governmental or government-friendly NGOs.
3. Do not expect the middle class to carry a revolution forward, but do not give up on the middle class.
In Egypt, the middle class played an important role in the revolution for social justice and democracy in 2011. Yet many members of the middle class abandoned the revolution when their interests were no longer threatened. They cared about freedom of speech but not about justice for workers or youth, and they tolerated the regime’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the U.S., within liberal middle-class communities, there seems to be a pattern that assumes a victory over Trump through elections is the end of the story of the U.S.’s engagement with neo-fascism. The concern is whether or not these communities would be willing to continue the struggle against Biden and the establishment to fight for racial, economic, gendered, and other interconnected forms of justice.
4. Don’t be fooled by neoliberalism’s seemingly progressive face — like the liberal multicultural appropriations of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” — and keep your eyes on the prize.
Egyptians learned the hard way not to trust an army that made false promises of protecting protesters against the violence of an authoritarian regime. If Biden wins, for instance, will people in the U.S. whose main objective is to defeat Trump care about the Movement for Black Lives? If Trump wins, will progressives trust the military and intelligence apparatuses in the U.S. to save us from Trump-backed white supremacist violence? Are we going to trust that state forces will protect people against white supremacists? If Trump refuses to concede, will we allow for a rise in excessive state power at the cost of people power? Any response to the current state of affairs must rely on movement-building for the long haul by opposing U.S. settler-colonialism, racial capitalism and Trumpism, not merely Trump, while defeating Trump-backed fascism along the way.
5. Work diligently against divisions within progressive movement organizing.
This does not mean complying with the liberal notion of “unity” that obscures racial, socio-economic, colonial, gendered and ableist structural violence. It means a principled united vision committed to dismantling and building alternatives to all forms of structural violence. Dividing the movement was the primary counterrevolutionary tactic in Egypt: Polarization after the revolution was inevitable, especially since revolutionary partners generally tend to see implementing revolutions differently afterward. But in Egypt’s case, the military regime’s support of groups such as the Muslim brotherhood and liberals helped fueled sectarian polarization. Thus, instead of a healthy polarization to implement the revolution’s goals or debating about how best to implement the goals of the revolution, revolutionaries and many parts of the society were entrapped in unnecessary, highly divisive and dangerous sectarian conflicts. Fueling sectarianism was a counterrevolutionary tactic par excellence. In short, the military regime dictated its counterrevolutionary divisive logic onto the trajectory of the revolution. While divisions among U.S. social movements are inevitable, we need to notice and address them early on before the counterrevolution beats us to it.
6. Make plans for surviving the endless series of rapid-fire attacks.
In Egypt, activists and nonactivists alike were taken by surprise when the authoritarian power structure revealed its vicious determination to save corporations from the demands of poor and working-class people by any means necessary. What would it take to prepare us for the violence of a potential counterrevolution in the U.S.? In Egypt, the scale of attacks was new, if not immobilizing, to many. If we agree that we cannot risk being underprepared in the face of what’s to come, how will we balance emotionally and physically surviving the violence while we continue organizing, protesting and resisting for the long haul? In light of the possibility of mass hopelessness, despair, defeat and self-blame, what is our political strategy — especially when helplessness among us is precisely what the Trump administration wants?
7. Commit to abolition, decolonization and anti-imperialism.
A corrupt military apparatus backed by the U.S. is the backbone of Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Yet some strands of the Egyptian left shortsightedly focused only on domestic conditions like fighting against corruption or fighting for democracy within Egypt, producing an agenda that left the U.S. backing of Egyptian militarism intact. If U.S. leftists truly believe that racial capitalism is the problem, then we need to take seriously how global militarism and imperialism — from U.S. settler-colonialism to the “war on terror” and far beyond — enable and sustain racial capitalism.
Defunding and abolishing prisons and policing necessitates abolishing U.S. colonial and imperial war. The U.S. has been backing Egyptian dictators for over 30 years, and Trump and Trumpism have helped consolidate fascist tendencies and dictatorships across the globe. In this sense, perhaps beyond merely heeding these lessons from Egypt, those of us living in the U.S. should approach our Egyptian comrades, like survivors of fascism across the globe, as allies in a conjoined struggle with exceptionally high stakes rather than through mere gestures of solidarity.