- Crisis and Class War in Egypt by Sean F. McMahon
I do not consider myself a “Marxist,” being put off by the ideology’s deterministic thrust. Nonetheless, Marxist thought and analysis has a decided capacity to provide powerful insights into a range of contemporary and historical social issues. As an “eclectic” in terms of my own preferred analytical approach to sociopolitical questions, I recognize that the value of any conceptual scheme is determined by the degree to which it explains empirically verifiable occurrences. In the case of Sean McMahon’s Crisis and Class War in Egypt, Marxist theory is expertly employed as an analytical framework that not only generates questions regarding the relevant dynamics of Egypt’s national politics in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring but also suggests very plausible answers. In my view, the limitations inherent in the Marxist approach, serious though they are, remain at the level of a nuisance only and are greatly outweighed by McMahon’s very significant contribution to an understanding of today’s Egypt.
Postulating that Egypt “has yet to realize an actual revolution,” McMahon presents his dual thesis almost at the outset:
2011 … was a particular expression of the ongoing crisis of global neoliberal capitalist relations and processes. … Egypt’s particular crisis has not been solved. Neither has the general [worldwide] crisis … the manner in which it has been temporally deferred is setting the stage for a bigger crisis in the future(p. 27).
Crisis and Class War in Egypt should be a required text for all who wish to fathom Egypt’s current political scene. Once McMahon’s Marxist categories are themselves deconstructed (a fairly straightforward exercise in itself), the sadly ongoing saga of Egypt’s post–Arab Spring upheavals is revealed to be the result of an intricate, complex phenomenon in which economic factors constitute one — but only one — of a range of motivating elements leading to that unfortunate country’s current reality. To dismiss, as the author does, religion, nationalism, cultural, and other sociologically relevant motivating impulses as mere “fetishes” obviously becomes impossible.
Still, as I indicated above, such clear limitations of materialistic Marxist analytics do not detract in any serious way from McMahon’s very impressive contribution. The book illuminates the actual forces circumscribing and penetrating the current international neoliberal context and largely explains how and why they helped drive Egypt through the seemingly chaotic hoops it has been jumping since 2011.
What McMahon’s book strikingly reveals is the story of a developing society in which the vast majority of citizens are socially, politically, and economically marginalized and therefore all too susceptible to various seductive ideological painkillers. On the other hand, the politically active and aware classes — the various interests that McMahon labels as “productive,” “predatory,” and “commercial” capital — possessed the wherewithal and the will to engage in the single-tracked pursuit of purely selfish economic interests. Moreover, McMahon is, most unfortunately, also probably correct in concluding that the dismal progression of the syndrome he identifies as Egypt’s must lead to a predictable future outcome: an even greater social catastrophe.
Despite its ultimately gloomy prognosis, McMahon’s work provides a welcome and detailed new analysis of the events and processes that have marked Egypt’s political-economic [End Page 314] trajectory over the past half-decade. The work is thoroughly researched and strongly grounded in Marxist theory. This allows the author to present a clear, largely persuasive, and refreshingly novel interpretation of recent events affecting one of the most important actors in the Arab world.
The book’s structure is logical and flows nicely, rendering McMahon’s discussion of complex political-economic phenomena accessible and easily understandable. The work opens (Chapter One, “Introduction”) with a discussion of the key elements of Marxist thought that will subsequently figure prominently in the specific analysis of Egypt. Chapters Two and Three (respectively, “Dialectical Development of Egypt’s Crisis Moment” and “Fetishisms and Factions”) extend and deepen the general theoretical narrative but simultaneously begin introducing concrete empirical and historical information on Egypt’s particular...