The very title of this commentary poses a question. What or who is the left? There is little agreement on this subject. I shall use the term to include any group that claims it is part of the left or at least left-of-center. This is of course a wide group. And, consequently, there is very little agreement among it as to whom to support, morally or politically, in the enormous turmoil that has been shaking Egypt and led to the deposition by the Egyptian armed forces of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt.
As I read the statements and explanations of various groups on the left outside of Egypt, I believe it is a question of priorities: Who or what constitutes the greatest danger in the medium run? I think I discern three basic positions.
There are those for whom “Islamists” of any variety represent the fundamental threat. Of course, there are many different kinds of Islamists. The three principal varieties among Sunni Muslims are the Moslem Brotherhood, the Wahabites/Salafists, and those grouped under the label of Al-Qaeda. All three repudiate the other two, and this explains many of the alliances that emerge in any country with a substantial Muslim population.
But for those on the left who make a priority of keeping the Islamists from political power, the so-called moderate Islamists are simply more astute Islamists who are pursuing the same long-time objective of states governed by sharia law. These persons therefore are ready to make alliances with anyone who is fighting the Islamists.
There is a second group who see the armies as the primary enemy. They believe that the armies are highly conservative and repressive forces who have reactionary political and economic views, and who often have direct economic interests in maintaining neoliberal economic policies. They acknowledge that sometimes the armies seem to support popular forces and sometimes they seem to pursue policies opposed to those of the United States or of western European powers.
But their view of these “moderate” views of the armed forces is parallel to the views of the anti-Islamists. They perceive “moderation” or “populism” on the part of the armies as simply a cover for their long-run reactionary objectives.
And then there are those who perceive the United States (and correlatively the ex-colonial powers of western Europe) as the main threat. They see the armies and the Islamists as simply playing the game assigned to them by the United States. Hence, any group that actively opposes whatever they think the United States wants should be supported in their view. Indeed, once again there is a strong version. Some persons see even the young radicals leading uprisings as manipulated by the United States. For this group, the United States is still all-powerful.
Of course there will be some, indeed many, who will argue that these are false choices. One can, and should be, simultaneously against the Islamists, the armies, and the United States. But in practice, there are often moments when one has to choose priorities. So the question remains total.
This debate about the priority enemy is a large part of what explains the relative weakness of left forces in these struggles. They are divided in their analyses. They are therefore divided in their short-term and even middle-term objectives. And worse still, many left individuals and groups seem aware of this, which leads to a creeping pessimism and therefore a creeping withdrawal from militant politics.
The alternative to this self-disabling of the left is to engage in more open and comradely debate within the left. And this can only be done if the left realizes that the world right represents as large a panorama of forces and analyses as the world left. And once again, I say that this comradely debate has to be done within the framework of a world transition from a capitalist system to something else, yet to be determined. If the left loses the bigger battle, it will have first of all itself to blame.