At a time when the military are once again being drawn into the conflict in Egypt, it is worth considering the socio-economic situation of the ordinary soldier in times of internal crisis – particularly during periods involving historically profound contradictions. The uprisings that became popularly known as the ‘Arab Spring’ were triggered by serious economic problems in the Middle East and North Africa, as the systemic economic crisis of capital rippled around the world. All the five elements of the current crisis; economic, financial, political, moral and environmental are being played out in Egypt and the Middle East as they are elsewhere in the globe. However, in Egypt some aspects (economic and political) are perhaps more clearly distinguishable than elsewhere.
The current contest in July 2013 is between bourgeois democracy and mass street democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, as is predictable, are standing up for a bourgeois form of democracy, which is always corrupt and never represents more than a small percentage of the population who are unduly influenced by TV adverts, dubious sources of funding and back-stairs deals etc. Standing against this are the masses who are still attempting to pursue bread, jobs and freedom. The majority massing in the streets evidently do not want a religious form of dictatorial governance any more than they wanted a secular Mubarak form of dictatorship. They want a solution to their fundamental problems and these are not being addressed by Morsi and the Brotherhood.
In the past the military have frequently played a prominent role in Egyptian affairs, both for the good and the bad. In the 1950’s struggle against European and US colonial oppression a group in the Egyptian army adopted the name ‘Association of Free Officers’ and aimed at ‘freedom’ from western control and the restoration of their countries dignity. When former army colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser assumed control a series of major welfare measures were eventually promoted. Useful reforms in education, family law, universal health care, women’s rights and housing provision were then introduced. It was a top-down but popular and progressive overthrow of the previous regime.
This time, however, the senior military figures are tied to the American political and military establishment to the extent of billions of dollars per year. So this time in Egypt, as the situation develops, tensions will probably develop between the ordinary soldier and the senior command. It should be obvious that the ordinary Egyptian soldiers future lies not with American neo-liberal elite and its collaborators in their own officer class, but with the ordinary people of Egypt. And in order to be a pole of attraction for the ordinary soldier the ordinary people need to rise above religious and other forms of sectarianism and work toward realising basic human rights of employment, housing, women’s rights and justice for all Egypt’s citizens.
What follows applies to rank and file soldiers in most countries of the world, but applies particularly clearly to the armed forces of Egypt. These soldiers and soldiers elsewhere, will not have heard the following points from their senior commanders or officers for it is in the military, political and economic elites interests everywhere to hide the real facts about the soldiers true position. They will have been told that their duty is to their ‘regiment’, their ‘officers’ or their ‘nation’. Their real class position is hidden behind such deceptive abstractions in order for them to be used as a versatile tool of the reactionary ruling elite in each country. Yet if we consider the ordinary soldiers real economic and social position we cannot avoid concluding and explaining to them the following.
The actual socio-economic position of soldiers.
1. They are predominantly recruited from the working class often because the economic system is so unjust and distorted that they would be unemployed or under-employed if they did not join up.
2. They are trained to a high level of skill in various trades including wounding and killing people – and are paid various skill-level wages or salaries.
3. Even though they to not make a profit for their employer, (their labour is unproductive of capital) economically speaking they are in fact a special case of the category of skilled, public-sector worker.
4. What is more, their skills, training, wages and equipment are paid out of the taxes (monetised surplus-value) extracted from the majority of the population – who just happen to be – the working people of their country.
5. Just as other workers they are often humiliated, abused and brutalised by their immediate managers (officers) – particularly during training – and sent to work into situations that are dangerous – often for dubious and/or illegal reasons.
6. Just like other workers they have no say in what operations they are required to carry out or how these actions are to be conducted. And like many other workers they are often required to work long hours in atrocious conditions.
7. However, unlike ordinary workers they are not allowed to belong to a trade union and are sometimes required to be exceptionally brutal against unarmed protestors in their own country – ie those who pay their wages and salaries.
8. Just like other workers, when they are injured at work and can no longer function effectively they are frequently sacked and find themselves back among the working class, from which they came.
9. Unlike other workers they are often treated as guinea pigs for new medicines and equipment and cannot refuse to carry out orders that may not be well thought out. These orders may also involve acts of deliberate brutality and abuse of human-rights.
10. When they return from such ill-thought out (often illegal) high command ’actions’ they may have faced hatred and suffered such trauma that their peace of mind or health is permanently effected.
11. Indeed, many soldiers returning from military assignments suffer nightmares, sleep loss, relationship breakdown and much else. Many become reliant on alcohol, drugs and many commit suicide. These along with severed limbs are among the many occupational hazards of this destructive line of work.
12. Just like other workers, the loyalty to the elite – which they are required to commit, too – is not returned. When considerations of finance come up for review among the elite, like many other workers, they are not only issued with sub-standard equipment but many will have their services terminated.
Historical splits within military forces.
In the history of their battalions ordinary soldiers will only have been told about specific battles and heroism, they will never be told about any atrocities their battalions have been previously ordered to commit. Nor, in the case of western armies, the real reason they were sent to invade foreign lands. In general, (Egypt being perhaps one of a few exceptions) they will not be informed of the instances when soldiers have joined the working people and assisted in the overthrow of reactionary regimes.
Whilst it is true that any armed force will attract those easily influenced, by pomp, ceremony and bullsh–t, along with those needing an outlet for aggressive tendencies, not all can be tarred with these same brushes. For in every clearly progressive revolutionary development of societies throughout history, at a crucial juncture, many thousands of ordinary soldiers and sailors have sided with revolutionary forces working to improve the socio-economic situation for the majority.
Of course, soldiers in such revolutionary circumstances, have needed to be sure that the cause which appealed to them for support was transparently for the benefit of the majority and not just some elite clique. This possibility – based upon the obvious facts noted in the previous twelve points – constantly haunts the minds of the ruling military and political elites. For this reason they take all possible measures to separate this special category of skilled worker, physically and emotionally from their roots in their respective communities.
However, as the crisis deepens and popular unrest increases in country after country, as it has again in Egypt, once again soldiers will, sooner or later, be invited to consider the question of who to ultimately obey – the elite via their officers – or those who pay their wages. In a revolutionary crisis, they will also be faced with either taking the side of an outmoded system, which is fuelled by greed, impoverishing the majority of people and is terminally polluting the planet – or taking the side of working class communities in order to create a better future.
It is obvious that the present capitalist system exploits soldiers as it does all workers and after using them as dispensable ‘cannon fodder’, casts them aside when they are no longer needed. The pro-capitalist elite callously use them to maintain their wealth and they hope to use them to prevent the changes necessary for the future of humanity. This issue of ‘who and what is an ordinary soldier’ has again become immediately important for the activists in Egypt and elsewhere. It will also become an important one for other anti-capitalist to consider, the more critical the crisis becomes and as protests continue to escalate in scale and intensity.
A future without armed aggression.
Of course, in any post-capitalist society informed by revolutionary-humanist views, there would be no ‘special forces’ divorced from their communities and controlled only by an elite. All adult community members would be able to bear arms but only in defence of their communities. And unlike most capitalist-formed armed forces this defence would be informed and tempered by humanitarian concerns and strictly uphold the human rights of friends and any future foes alike. As Engels noted with regard to the revolutionary circumstances of the 1871 Paris Commune;
“From the very outset the Commune was compelled to recognise that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must on the one hand, do away with all the old oppressive machinery used against itself, and on the other safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.” (Introduction to Marx’s ‘Civil War in France’. Peking edition. Page 15.)
The communal organisation once firmly established on a national scale, the catastrophes it might still have to undergo would be sporadic slaveholders insurrections, which, while for a moment interrupting the work of peaceful progress, would only accelerate the movement, by putting the sword into the hand of social revolution. (Marx. First Draft ‘Civil War in France’. in First International and After. Penguin. Page 253.)
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2013.)
[See also ‘Egypt and Tunisia: The failure of reforms’ ; ‘The Egyptian Elections’; ‘Military control in Egypt’ and ‘The Five-Fold Crisis of Capitalism’..]