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Sectarianism and Counter-Revolution in Egypt: Not a Family Affair

[Coalition of Socialist Forces carry a banner that reads: [Coalition of Socialist Forces carry a banner that reads: "One hand against sectarianism and discrimination." Image by Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr.]

One week before 30 June, the day of mass protest against president Mohamed Morsi, a new convulsion of violence targeted one of Egypt’s most marginal groups, and left many in shock. On 23 June, a mob of Sunni Egyptians, incited by the Salafist imam of their local mosque, lynched four Shi‘i Egyptians in the Giza village of Zawiyat Abu Musallam. Scores more Shi‘i residents fled their homes in terror. Analyses since have rightly pointed to the disturbing rise in such sectarian incidents in Egypt, but have been careful to highlight domestic dynamics, to the exclusion of regional and international context. A closer look reveals that the responsible parties are not just the eight men sitting now in prison cells. They are also comfortably ensconced in power in Washington DC, Doha and Riyadh, as well as at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and in the presidential palace in Cairo. These power players’ differing interests have converged against the principal demands of the 25 January revolutionaries in an attempt to preserve the economic and foreign policy orientations of the old regime, while ushering in a new administration. Operating on the domestic, regional and international levels, they have together brought Egypt to the untenable situation it is in today.

Ever since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, conservative political elites in Egypt have cooperated both in the open and behind closed doors. Through a rushed transitional period and disputed electoral process, they have sought to defuse widespread demands for structural change. For the first eighteen months of a post-Mubarak reality, the primary power brokers were the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Beginning last year on 30 June, the Muslim Brotherhood, under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, quickly joined the fray. SCAF and the Brotherhood both used a normative discourse built on varying degrees of religiously infused legitimacy to confront revolutionary demands. This discourse has fluctuated between overtly conservative Sunni political Islam under Morsi, and a more insidious form under SCAF, in which state and private media privileged voices from the Brotherhood and Salafist Islamist camp. Meanwhile, liberal and leftist members of 25 January’s revolutionary coalitions were regularly—and sometimes violently—silenced. In both cases, the authorities used the classic strategy of divide and rule to open fissures in the revolutionary camp. As this rapidly shifting discourse gained ground, sectarianism emerged as one of its most damaging manifestations. 

Starting with the series of attacks on churches in 2011, and continuing with the latest anti-Shi‘a violence, these trends are not unique. Indeed this “outbidding” between Islamists and ostensibly secular forces has its historical roots in the efforts and strategies of former president Anwar al-Sadat. Understanding these attacks also requires equal attention to the role of US Middle East policy, and its consistent preference for Islamist and authoritarian rule among its clients. The United States has been a principal political and financial backer of both SCAF and the Brotherhood, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia playing supportive roles. These states all share an interest in expanding the regional influence of a constellation of Sunni forces, and the containment of the so-called Shi‘i “axis” of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. The sectarian difference between the two camps does not drive the conflict—despite its destructive power over people’s lives—the more relevant fault-line lies in positions on US regional policy and most notably Israel, and their competing positions within international and regional networks of neoliberal interests. The Morsi administration’s demonstrated compliance with these arrangements has facilitated its growing relations with the United States, based on the same interests that underpinned US-Egyptian ties under Mubarak and Sadat.

Islamists from Sectarian Ideology to Practice

In the Egyptian context, the reasons why the Shi‘a, and more frequently the Christians, have become targets of such intensifying violence of late are both ideological and political. The first has obtained since the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as well as the rise of modern-day Salafist groups during the 1970s. The second pertains to a newfound confidence of the Islamist camp, born of the shifting landscape of political opportunity that has recently favored its various members.

The ideological roots of the Muslim Brotherhood can be traced to the thinking of Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), who was a student of Sheikh Muhammad Abdu and a conservative member of the reformist “Salafiyya” movement in the early twentieth century. Rida’s teachings inspired the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, whose self-declared mission was to purify Islamic practice. Banna presided over the establishment of the militant ‘Special Organization.’ The Brotherhood’s vision of citizenship centered on Sunni Muslims, and excluded members of other faiths and confessions. Sayyid Qutb further radicalized the Brotherhood’s message in the 1950s and 1960s. He argued that the spiritual and moral decay of contemporary Muslims made them legitimate targets of violence.

Egyptian Salafism formally developed with sheikh Hamid al-Fiqqi’s establishment of Gam‘iyyat Ansar al-Sunna (“The Association of Advocates of the Sunna”) in 1926. With time, it grew into a heterogeneous social movement without one organizational center. Given unprecedented freedom of maneuver under Sadat and Mubarak, a loose network of Salafist preachers proliferated. This network, particularly concentrated in Alexandria and Upper Egypt, developed close ties with its Wahhabi counterparts in Saudi Arabia. Salafism connotes a commitment to restore Islam to the practices established by the prophet Muhammad and the first caliphs (the righteous forefathers, or al-salaf al-salih). Its default position for decades was to forbid rebellion against a ruler, as long as he was a Muslim.[1] Accordingly, many Salafist-appropriated sources teach that once a ruler ceases to be Muslim, this legitimizes violent opposition. For many preachers, and for jihadist groups such as al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, this principle is freely extended to ordinary citizens. It is important to note that the Brotherhood has also absorbed Salafist trends, particularly since the 1970s, and as such for both Qutbists and Salafists, “acceptance of notions like democracy and diversity are minimal.” Today, the Qutbist trend is ascendant in the Brotherhood and is represented by the pre-eminence of Khairat al-Shater, who enjoys relations of trust with Salafist political elites.

These ideas have found loud echoes since the January 25 Revolution, as Islamists of multiple stripes have moved into the sphere of political practice with a vengeance. After decades of state repression, the sudden opportunity to disseminate ideas and impose strict codes has been intoxicating. For Salafists in particular, this moment is one of remarkable rupture. It entails difficult processes of negotiating the norms and regulations of political life, and establishing a hierarchy and a disciplined “party line” on a range of policy issues. Meanwhile the Brotherhood, given its success at the polls, has finally had to shoulder the burden of rule, managing the challenges of confrontation with opposition members as well as internal dissent. Many scholars have written of the “moderation effect” that executive power has on formerly “radical” groups. The two-year record of Egypt’s Islamists and their positions on minorities and freedom of conscience, has exhibited a moderation of public discourse. However, it has also dangerously incited sectarianism and encouraged intolerance in private discourse as well as in practice

While the Brotherhood and FJP spokesmen have used the language of pluralism and human rights, Morsi’s reiterated references to “his kith and kin” clearly address a tight and exclusive Brotherhood group. Countless religious justifications and analogies also betray a vision of citizenship that does not extend beyond the conservative Sunni Brotherhood profile. Similarly, there was a pledge to include a Coptic Christian among the presidential advisory team, but the one chosen was an FJP member. In late 2012, senior Brotherhood and FJP figures repeatedly spoke of Christians as a fifth column conspiring to overthrow Morsi and wreak havoc. They went so far as accusing the Coptic Orthodox Church itself. But it is Morsi’s inaction that is arguably most damaging and telling: he has sanctioned practices that run the gamut from hate speech to incitement to violence. Notable here is the president’s tolerance for the proliferating private television channels that host tele-preachers whose fatwas and commentaries are flagrantly sectarian, misogynist, and unsubstantiated. 

The Salafists have behaved rather differently in public debate, enacting more visibly exclusionary practices. These include covering women’s images on electoral posters, and vociferously attacking the idea of Christians or women attaining positions of power, let alone extending full citizenship rights to Shi‘a and Baha’is. Members of licensed Salafist political parties such as al-Nour and its mother organization, al-Da‘wa al-Salafiyya, also furiously condemned the rapprochement with Iran in May 2013, during former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedjinad’s visit. They further opposed the subsequent re-opening of tourism between the two states by staging sit-ins outside the Iranian Ambassador’s residence and the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. Some al-Nour members saw fit to put up posters describing the Shi‘a as enemies in various locales since. Some Salafists have also engaged in mob violence against women and Copts, in a periodic flexing of muscles. Neither the FJP nor the Salafist leaderships have condemned these attacks with particular force. They have chosen instead to send “reconciliation committees” to “mend fences” between the aggrieved citizens and their attackers. Harsh threats and punitive measures, of the sort Morsi meted out to peaceful protesters in Port Said in January 2013 for example, have been completely absent.

Indeed, the relationship between the Brotherhood and the main Salafist parties itself is productive of some of the most exclusionary and violent outcomes of the last two years. There has been both bitter rivalry and pragmatic cooperation between the parties since 2011. According to this tacit pact, the Salafists provide the Brotherhood with support to push through their policies, “resisting external pressure or calls for genuine democratic reforms.” In return, the Brotherhood recognizes the Salafists’ aspirations, to found a religious state for example and gives them a greater say in influencing outcomes. This bargain buoyed Morsi through the massive protests against his unilateral “constitutional declaration” of November 2012, and against the unpopular constitution itself. In their cooperative mode, the two parties have issued harsh critiques of the traditionally pluralist and moderate al-Azhar, the foremost Islamic institution in the country. They have also employed the democratization discourse of the revolution to demand the opening of the position of sheikh al-Azhar to “popular vote,” a means by which a theologian of rather different profile could come to command this level of influence. Similarly, many observers have noted the upsurge in violent attacks, incited or steered by Salafist preachers, and “allowed” by Brotherhood authorities in return for support at times of political crisis—for example, ahead of the 30 June protests.

Even instances of conflict rather than cooperation lead to forms of outbidding that intensify rather than temper the exclusionary nature of political outcomes. For example, in late 2012, the Salafists exerted great pressure on the Brotherhood members of the constituent committee—as it hemorrhaged more and more non-Islamist members—over Article 2 of the draft constitution. Salafist constituent assembly members threatened to leave if the article did not strictly delineate the primary source of legislation as sharia law, and specify the Sunni schools which the Salafists recognize. The resulting compromise was to introduce Article 219, which clarified the “principles of sharia” as follows: “The principles of Islamic sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.” Thus the constitution clearly demotes and excludes non-Sunni schools of jurisprudence. This is despite the fact that the Azhar officially recognized these schools in 1959 and continues to teach them today. This is not to mention, of course, the exclusion of other faiths and secular legal traditions.

Washington’s Sunni Sectarianism

Officially, US cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood began only last year, once Morsi came to office. But the United States has been backing conservative regimes, often built on religiously infused or Islamist legitimacy for decades. Analysts such as Muhammad Hassanein Heikal and Saad Eddin Ibrahim have claimed that Washington has been in dialogue with the Brotherhood since the mid-2000s at least, and may have pressured Mubarak to step down in favor of the organization. US direct support or indirect tolerance for conservative Islamism in the region has been vital to its hegemony, and is crucial to understanding sectarian violence in Egypt and the Arab world.

Ever since the early Cold War, and Washington’s decision to engage with the Middle East, the US preference for working with religiously conservative regimes has been clear. It has consistently employed divide and rule tactics by supporting these states against regional rivals which they have in common. With Washington’s first “special relationship” forged with King Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia in the 1940s, US interests in the Middle East crystallized around privileged access to oil and security cooperation. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, US interests extended to include the assurance of Israeli security and military advantage. As decolonization gathered momentum, the new generation of secular pan-Arabist leaders threatened these US interests, by emphasizing the Arab people’s unity, and rights to sovereignty and independence. US and UK policymakers singled out the Egyptian vanguard of this trend, Gamal Abdel Nasser, for “containment.” They attempted this containment through a combination of intermittent incentives, subversion, and increasing coercion throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Their principal strategy was to build up regional rivals in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, all conservative monarchies with state ideologies that revere Sunni Islam—rather than unifying, secular pan-Arabism.[2] In Saudi Arabia in particular, members of the religious establishment founded the Muslim World League in 1962 to proselytize Wahhabism, and fostered strong ties with Egyptian exiles, aided by the “petrodollar effect.” The crucial corollary of this was the stifling of national, let alone trans-national, pan-Arab solidarities. 

The following decades, the United States worked to secure military bases in strategic locations. It signed defense agreements with the most sectarian of authoritarian leaderships in the Gulf, the minority Sunni monarchy of Bahrain in 1971, among others. The United States has consistently refrained from meaningful censure of its allies’ discriminatory sectarian policies. Such policies include for example, the naturalization of Sunni foreigners in Bahrain, to engineer a demographic majority. They also include police violence against Shi‘a in both Saudi’s Qatif province and across Bahrain. Perhaps one of the must destructive moments of US complicity in sectarianism came with the neoconservative era of George Bush when Condoleeza Rice’s principle of “creative chaos” was put into catastrophic effect during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. In that besieged nation, already under the strain of war and sanctions for well over two decades, the United States’ “early policies eliminated the Iraqi state and symbols of common national identity. Sectarian-minded actors stepped into the vacuum while occupation forces passively observed the unraveling of the national fabric.”

Throughout this time, the Sadat and Mubarak regimes dutifully served as bulwarks of stability for Israel, earning over a billion dollars of annual US aid in return. They also successfully repressed the democratic aspirations of the most populous Arab state. This success was partially based on a policy of controlled sectarianism. Both regimes touted their pious credentials, believing that they could not only foster and use intercommunal tensions, but also defuse them, to divide or distract the public.

Faced with the sudden loss of strategic allies in Zeinedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the United States sought reassurance on the preservation of status quo ante in business and security cooperation. The Brotherhood was a willing partner. And despite some senior US officials doubts since the FJP won in the parliamentary elections of January 2012, the rise of conservative Sunni political Islam has not appeared to perturb the United States and its allies

Senior US security officials’ already intimate relationship with their Egyptian military counterparts certainly contributed to shaping Egypt’s flawed “transition period.” They blessed the handover of power to civilian president Morsi as democratic and historic. Indeed, US officials appear to have been tentatively yet steadily consolidating ties with Morsi, as his economic and foreign policy choices have increasingly mirrored those of his ousted predecessor. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s weak reactions to sectarian violence, the assaults on freedom of expression, military trials for civilians, and SCAF crackdowns on nongovernmental organizations have not elicited strong reactions from the United States or Europe. Moreover, once in power, Morsi has failed to bring to justice Islamist militias who tortured and abused protesters in November 2012, or to ensure the safety of Egypt’s Coptic Cathedral from attack by armed gangs, while Christian school-teachers are taken to court for “defamation of religion.” Again, none of these transgressions have received more than the lightest of rebukes or expressions of concern, if at all. For the US administration, it appeared to be business as usual.

Meanwhile, further east, the United States has provided logistical and diplomatic support to groups who understand their role in Syria as soldiers of a Sunni crusade. This cooperation involves most of Washington’s regional partners in its oil, security and sectarian policies. There are conservative, many jihadist, Sunni Islamists on the ground in the Free Syrian Army, with Qatar as their main financier, along with Turkey as host for opposition and arms transport. As a leaked 2006 cable from the US embassy in Damascus shows, US interests in toppling a regime notorious for its support for Hizbullah are not new. The public figures representing the US-backed current of the opposition, which has been drowning out many others, have consistently underlined the “Alawi nature” of the Assad regime. This current has also displayed its sectarian logic in the targeting of Christian civilians. Meanwhile, prominent clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has long called himself a moderate, have worked to bring this logic into mainstream settings, and to normalize its implications. For example, speaking on his Al-Jazeera program in early June, al-Qaradawi urged Sunnis to join the battle in Syria, asking “How could 100 million Shi‘ites [worldwide] defeat 1.7 billion [Sunnis]?" (…) "only because [Sunni] Muslims are weak.” 

Contexts in Zawiyat Abu Musallam 

These interests and players shed light on the tragic events of 23 June. On 9 May, US Secretary of State John Kerry authored a memorandum overruling concerns at the undemocratic record of the Egyptian regime. The text went on to authorize the release of the 1.3 billion USD in annual aid to Egypt. Kerry noted that this aid would serve such US national interests as increasing security in Sinai, preventing Gazan attacks into Israel, countering terrorism, and securing transit through the Suez Canal. Kerry explained: “A decision to waive restrictions… is necessary to uphold these interests as we encourage Egypt to continue its transition to democracy.” On 13 June, US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson added her vote of confidence to the Morsi administration. Dismissing plans for 30 June protests, she stated: “the Government of the United States of America supports Egypt, its people, and its government….Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical.” 

One day later, the US president declared his administration's intention to arm rebel forces against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The larger Friends of Syria Group—comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey—then together resolved “to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground.” 

Morsi's reaction to these developments was rapid and indicated continuity with the notorious Mubarak tradeoff: cash in foreign policy credit to stem domestic discontent and bolster authoritarianism. On 15 June, the Egyptian president severed diplomatic ties with Syria, and spoke at an Islamist rally in Cairo stadium organized “in support of the Syrian revolution.” The rally was a show of strength, in defiance of the plans for 30 June, and of the Tamarod Campign (“Rebellion”) petition campaign, which has collected over twenty-two million signatories withdrawing confidence in Morsi and demanding early presidential elections. Morsi and the Brotherhood hoped the rally would distract from the country’s problems, and rally Egyptians around the Sunna crusade mentioned above.

The United States failed to comment, however, on the unashamedly sectarian overtones of the meeting, which reverberated violently beyond the Cairo Stadium venue. Morsi himself betrayed his sectarian outlook by denouncing the Assad regime as “a Shi’i oppressor of Sunnis” rather than of all Syrian citizens. Salafist preachers such as Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Abd al-Maqsud underlined the “necessity of declaring Jihad in Syria, in which Syrians and any capable Muslims shall take part.” More shocking was Morsi’s lack of reaction or subsequent action, when these preachers, after denouncing the protests of 30 June, called on Morsi to bar Shi‘i Muslims from Egypt, describing them as “filth.” Later on, Salafist preacher Safwat Hegazy seemed to taunt Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros III, shouting “Morsi is your president!” to elated revelers. Morsi sat listening impassively throughout. His spokesman Ahmed Aref observed: “Throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war.”

It is this uncensored hate speech and incitement to violence—enhanced by Egypt’s foreign backers’ position on Syria—which make Morsi and his network of sectarian-minded Islamist supporters and allies, culpable for the ensuing violence. This context doubtlessly contributed to the boldness of the Salafist preachers in Zawiyat Abu Musallam, who have kept up a longstanding anti-Shi‘a campaign, using Friday prayer sermons to incite worshippers against their neighbors. As Egyptian human rights investigators observed, there was no supervision by the Ministry of National Endowments of the goings-on in these gatherings. The decision to attack was taken just a few days after Morsi’s stadium rally—as several Shi‘i families gathered to mark a religious holiday. Acute state negligence peaked with the police’s total disengagement from events, despite being stationed close by.

Certainly, there is a particular form of popular piety prevalent in Egypt today, which has meant that a wider mass of Egyptians—not only self-professed Salafists—can respond to incitement by preachers. This mode of piety is encouraged by the state but not connected to institutional direction nor stable sources. These men’s motivations, their blocked social mobility and the disciplining practices to which they have been subject, require separate investigation. 

With the protesters of 30 June still in Egypt’s streets, what should be borne in mind is the question of responsibility. The Azhar as well as Egypt’s Grand Mufti condemned the attack in unequivocal and harsh terms. By contrast Morsi’s lukewarm response, in which he avoided the word “Shi‘a,” was matched only by the tenor and brevity of the US embassy press release. The same Salafist tele-preachers, who appeared to dance on the graves of the four Egyptians on live television in the aftermath, were not censured. The investigation launched into the attack is unlikely to be more effective than each of its feeble antecedents, continuing to carefully avoid the critical matter of citizenship. Morsi’s legitimacy, already paper-thin after the flawed transitional process, has built on a sectarian Islamism that has excluded ever-larger swathes of his constituency, and fuelled the violent tendencies of an increasingly audacious minority. This legitimacy is now in tatters. The United States and its allies, by sponsoring this regime, and others responsible for the swelling of this sectarian posture in the Middle East, are just as complicit. Even if from a distance, they too stand against Egypt’s protesters today, just as they have done in every one of Egyptians’ ongoing struggles to secure their full social, economic and political rights.

[1] Although such groups were mostly politically quietist, they cannot not be described as apolitical, given their pro-Saudi sensibilities, and their willingness to work within the parameters of Sadat’s campaign against the Nasserist and leftist opposition during the 1970s. Indeed it was this shift that gave both the Brotherhood and the Salafist groups their first political opportunity.

[2] See Ray Takeyh, The Origins of the Eisenhower Doctrine: The US, Britain and Nasser’s Egypt, 1953-7, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000, 110-114.




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