From the Editors
When I left Egypt two weeks before the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak last year, Egyptians were not allowed to discuss three issues publicly: politics, religion, and sex. However, after spending two weeks in the post-revolutionary Egypt, I realized that these taboos are no more. Apparently, a sense of unfettered freedom is inescapable, albeit in a chaotic pattern.
Apart from sex, which become more politicized as in the case of Samira Ibrahim, one of seven female protesters who were allegedly subjected to a shameful “virginity test” by the military, the depressed Egyptians are significantly overwhelmed by the other two things: politics and religion.
From the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the mosque imam who ironically advocated repeatedly for apathy and political subservience, all seem now mired in everyday politics, however, with no substance. In many ways, politics today is the same old wine in the old bottles—not even new ones.
Over the past fourteen months, the military has significantly succeeded in exhausting people in nothing but following an elusive and deceptive transition. This tactic has arguably created a self-reinforcing counter-revolution from within the original revolution.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has consolidated its grip not only on power but also on people’s minds. It has become the common denominator in public discussion--in houses, buses, cafes, media, and even mosques. And while many are irritated that SCAF turned from a “facilitator” of the transition into a ‘meddler’, they do not dare challenge its power or force it to rein in its unruly political and economic ambitious. “They are worse than their ex-boss,” the building sentry told me. Despite their disenchantment and bitterness, however, many Egyptians believe that forcing SCAF to cede power might entail real risks. Hence this sense of counter-revolution becomes necessary to avoid such allegedly imminent chaos.
“Liberals”—or non-Islamists, to be more precise—have adopted a similar argument. They are not ashamed of endorsing the military, at least tacitly, in the face of the “wild Islamists who are hungry to take over power” as a prominent liberal figure put it. When I countered that liberals have done nothing to the revolution except complaining and criticizing Islamists, he said: “criticizing Islamists is much easier [for us] than challenging them in the streets.” This pattern is certainly another aspect of the self-counter-revolution.
Having researched Islamist movements for a decade, getting in touch with their leaders in the past was a matter of a phone call. Yet this time the task was much more challenging. For instance, it took me a week to get a hold of Egypt’s “new rulers”, the Muslim Brothers. Last year when I was in Cairo, I spent three hours with Essam al-Erian, the prominent leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the current head of foreign relations committee in the parliament’s lower house, in his modest clinic in Talbiyya, less than a mile from the Pyramids. This time around his phone is busy around the clock. In 2007, when Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s presidential nominee, had been serving a military sentence since 2006, a courier told me that he is eager to follow my writings on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime. This time, his many assistants seemed to be playing “piggy in the middle” to set up an appointment for me to meet with him. More ironically, when I published my book about the Muslim Brotherhood in 2007, Mahdi Akef, then-General Guide of the Brotherhood called me asking for a meeting to discuss some of issues raised in the book. This time his diary was full of appointments.
Clearly, Islamists have unconsciously tumbled in self-deception saga. The upbeat feeling of Islamists’ ascendancy, which prevailed after the parliamentary elections, is significantly fading away. “The lure of power has taken them over,” said Mohamed, a twenty-five year old Islamist activist. “They do not care anymore about people, Islam or even da'wa [spreading the faith], they only focus on seizing power,” he added.
However, power, the mantra with which Islamists have been preoccupied for decades, seems now a mere mirage. What Islamists fail to realize is that the revolution did not lead to a real diffusion of power, but rather reconfigured it at the center. Instead of being dominated by a single political party (National Democratic Party), Egyptian politics now is under the control of the military. Not surprisingly therefore, Islamists still behave as an opposition, albeit with different flavor, not as a real wielder of power. SCAF shrewdly granted Islamists a powerless parliament, which has to face growing public resentment. The generals, in other words, purposely diverted the revolutionary rage from the SCAF to the parliamentarians. Islamists in this context dominate parliament, but are at the same time trapped inside it. “The military astutely tired Islamists in a futile game,” a Salafi leader hinted.
The more Islamists expand the scope of their political dominance, moreover, the less they are able maintain their “puritanical” credentials. Islamists are today risk losing their social and religious credibility largely due to the deepening of their engagement in political life. For decades, Islamists have presented themselves as the defenders of Islam and social agents who seek to “Islamize” individuals, society, and the state. Hence their popularity was grounded in their commitment to reviving the Islamic project in Egyptian society. For decades, they employed their struggle to bring this project to life to galvanize masses and garner support. However, their politicization and their preoccupation with political jockeying and short-term gains, however, has diverted them away from their proclaimed goal of Islamic revival, and , as a result, has led to greater discord within their base of support.
Apart from “formal” Islamist politics, new modes of personal religiosity have become apparent in Egyptian society. This development is reflected in the growing demand for religious symbolism in public sphere—beards, mobile religious ringtones, religious vocabulary in daily life–but also in growing commitments to mythological interpretations of political events in such a way that sidelines human agency. The controversy over the candidacy of Salafi figure Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail is a case in point. The majority of his fans and supporters do not accept the claim that his mother has acquired U.S. citizenship. Instead, they blame these allegations on a faceless “American plot,” as a cabdriver told me when we discussed the possibility of disqualifying Abu-Ismail from running in the presidential race. “Abu-Ismail is the only Islamic leader who can stop the west,” he explained. I asked him whom he would vote for if Abu-Ismail was not able to run “Nobody,” he said. That is where Egypt’s “self-counter-revolution” lies: in people’s self-deception.
[A shorter version of this article was published in The Daily News Egypt]
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