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The Scared Islamists And Their Frightened Majority

[Salafists Protesters Demanding the implementation of Shariaa law, photo from Reuters] [Salafists Protesters Demanding the implementation of Shariaa law, photo from Reuters]

To those unfamiliar with the “civil”/religious debate in Egypt, the term “civil” was recently dubbed to mark an assembly of disparate, sometimes conflicting, ideologies and positions that stand for the creation of what has come to be known as a “civil state.” This “civil state” is in turn commonly imagined as something that stands against a theocratic (Islamic) state, but not necessarily against political Islam per se — for there are several Islamic versions of the “civil.” The term “civil” forced itself on public debate for the first time perhaps during the 2005 parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the only serious contender to the old ruling party. Since then, its evolution led it to acquire multiple meanings, like all other political signifiers. One can even make the ready argument that it is currently but an empty signifier, but such is true of all political signifiers (for example, the much cherished linguistic mess that we call “democracy”).

More recently, however, our young term started taking up either of two broad meanings: a secular position that accepts, albeit unwillingly, the second article of Sadat’s/Mubarak’s constitution (the principles of Islamic Sharia are the origin of all laws), or certain Islamist positions that accept, albeit more unwillingly, some liberal and secular freedoms (e.g. the Wasat or Strong Egypt parties). It goes without saying that both “civil” and religious camps are composed of different, and sometimes opposing, political currents and entities.

During the past year or so, the term “civil” narrowed its focus further as it began to refer only to the quasi-secular camp above. People now treat it as something that generally opposes the establishment of a theocratic Islamic state (but not “secular” in the technical sense). Currently this broad signification unites many different, ideologically antagonistic, secular political ideologies who pose as “civil” in an environment that doesn’t allow them to pose as “secular.” Islamists are therefore generally antagonistic to this camp, often conflating it with its largest constituency: the “liberals” (in the strict sense of the word), who do comprise the largest constituency of the “civil” camp, but are nevertheless not an overwhelming majority of it.

Since the revolution, the competition between the “civil” and Islamist camps has only intensified, eventually reaching the level of a cold civil war. And it makes sense that such a feud would escalate so much, for the stakes are extremely high. They revolve around not only who gets to rule, but also who gets to set the rules of the political game in the country; define the authorities of the ruler and the rights of the opposition; determine what will become of freedoms, rights, and obligations; set collective rights and wrongs; and the like. The development of the new constitution therefore naturally provides the main arena for this intense “cold war”. Recently the term “civil state” has spread outside Egypt; one can see it starting to organize politics in post-revolution Libya, for example.

The confident Islamist and the insignificant “civil”

Within this framework, the story goes, the various Islamist organizations are the only political players with real organic presence: they are close to the people, speak their language, know how to convince them, and thus best represent the interests of the great majority of Egyptians. The “civil” camp, on the other hand, is generally represented as a tiny “Westernized” block that is furthest away from the people, and is often reduced to its largest constituency: the “liberals.” It is therefore common to bring up this camp as something that is generally elitist and always scared of a mighty Islamist block. Islamists commonly describe it pejoratively too: as an “insignificant” group with a big mouth and no influence whatsoever on the ground. They also commonly depict whatever strategies this supposedly “elitist” and “insignificant” block adopts as a form of “cheating” that is meant to deny the Islamists their “legitimate” right to represent “the people.” The malevolence of the “civil” camp, the Islamist argue, has no limits — for they can go as low as ally with the US, the military establishment, and the remnants of the old regime (known as “feloul”) to get their way.

It goes without saying that the “civil” camp adopts negative views of the Islamists, too. Space limitations aside, two main reasons drive me not to tackle them here. First, the shortcomings of the Islamist representations brilliantly expose the nature of the political impasse in Egypt. Secondly, the ruling regime is Islamist; Islamist representations are therefore “ruling” representations, at least in the technical sense. Not to mention that white postmodern scholars enjoy debunking the “civil” in Egypt and have as a result provided us with more than enough deconstructions of it.

Islamist panic attacks

Granted, recent developments have come to cast immense doubt over the “ruling” representation detailed above. For one, rallies and public demonstrations of the so-called “civil” camp have generally been staged by lower-middle class youth and not at all the elite. In fact, the “elite” was always reluctant to join them for reasons that are too long to bring up here. There is nothing exceptionally “Westernized” in these youth, either. That is to say, the Islamists’ generalizations about the social makeup of the “civil” camp are very visibly false—it’s more like they wish the “civil” camp to be so.

Nevertheless, the problem with our ruling representation goes well beyond one camp’s attempt to falsify the social makeup of its competitors. Our “ruling” representations fail miserably on another much more important account: they don’t account for the extreme sense of insecurity and panic that have come to color Islamists’ reactions since their ascendance to power. One would have expected that a mighty group that quite “naturally” represents “the people,” adopts the only “true” identity, is challenged only by an insignificant, elitist group — and the like of what Islamists in Egypt believe about themselves — would be much more confident than its “tiny,” supposedly insignificant enemy. But the developments of the past two weeks have shown that our mighty majority is extremely insecure and even frightened.

The Brotherhood’s decision to join the first anti-Morsy protest on 12 October is a case in point here. Several political groups had decided to stage an anti-Morsy rally to protest the failures of his first 100 days in office. The Brotherhood decided in turn to join this rally in order to acquire the right to change its goals—that is, to shift its goal away from opposing the MB president. Or so they had thought. They justified their participation in it by saying that the court’s acquittal of the accused in the Battle of the Camel case begs of all of us to forget our difference and ally together to depose of the Prosecutor General, who according to them conspired to assure the acquittal of the enemies of the revolution. Ironically, however, this far from the first case in which the courts acquitted “enemies of the revolution”; and the previous acquittals could not have passed as easily as they did without the Brotherhood’s political collusion. So people quite logically rejected the Brotherhood’s claim, and the “civil” protestors were determined to change neither the slogans nor the objectives of their rally. The Brotherhood insisted on participating in the rally to change its goals, nonetheless.

Naturally, both sides fought and the day ended in Brotherhood cadres beating up the “civil” protestors. During the clashes, MB cadres argued that they were only defending the choice of the majority— i.e. the elected Brotherhood president — against the plot of a mischievous minority that doesn’t “respect” democracy (i.e. the “civil” camp). Minding the fact that respecting democracy goes against beating up rallies on the grounds that they oppose an elected president, most people condemned the Brotherhood’s belligerence as something that stemmed from arrogance that they developed because of their power and relative strength. Others remarked that the MB’s arrogance is driving it to believe that it had the right to “protect” the “people” against anyone that disagrees with the MB — which spelled much danger in the future.

For some reason, no one read what happened as a manifestation of the Brotherhood’s fears, if not panic. Ultimately, the Brotherhood was too scared to let a small, supposedly insignificant, and elitist anti-Morsy protest go as is. They felt compelled to co-opt it at any cost (and it was a big cost), although their plans went sour.

In response, the “civil” camp responded with a bigger protest against the MB itself, the first of its kind since the MB’s formation in 1929. The regional resonance of the protest quickly boosted anti-Ennahda protests in Tunisia, pushing the Brotherhood’s insecurities further. Eventually, the Brotherhood started to fall back onto the SCAF’s old rhetoric, insecure as it was: according to Morsy, 600 paid thugs infiltrated the rally to trigger the fight between both camps, each being paid LE1000 by some unnamed agent provocateur to do so — the “third party” story, again! The SCAF was the first to circulate stories about an unknown “third party,” and its rule was: the more it felt insecure, the more “third party” stories it circulated.

Eid prayers followed a week later only to underline how insecure and scared the Islamists actually were, especially the Brotherhood. According to the press, including newspapers that are generally neutral towards the group, Brotherhood and Salafi preachers used the prayer sermon to “slaughter” the “civil camp,” attack the secularists, trash the labor movement, and more of the like. It seems that whichever Eid prayers the reporters went to cover, they all witnessed Brotherhood and Salafi preachers pouring venom on the “civil” camp and the labor movement. Given the spread of the attacks, one is left with either of two conclusions: preachers from all over Egypt were organized to do so, or they panicked for some reason at the same time and rose to defend the Islamist camp on their own. Either case betrays an immense sense of Islamist fear from the “civil” enemy.

Generally speaking, the Salafists display the extent of this fear from the "civil" much more vividly than the Brotherhood does. Last Friday, for example, they staged angry protests in Tahrir square to call for and defend, the implementation of Sharia law. The protest exposed that the Salafists were seriously worried from being defeated in the end by the supposedly insignificant "civil" camp, which they attacked with great determination. Their main speakers also behaved as if they represented an oppressed minority--ironically, oppressed by "the civil" camp! They were, in short, very much on the defensive. In so doing, they also exposed the extent to which our "tiny civil" camp has come to play a significant role in Egyptian politics. Not to mention that every bit of Salafist TV programming carries now a strong a sense of fear from an imagined "civil" victory, always evoking the the "civil" camp as if it were a ruling regime.

The Roots of the Islamist Fear

So why would mighty Islamists be so frightened from their supposedly “insignificant” competitor? Surely it can’t be because of the size or strength of the latter — or is it? I for one believe that what is now known as the “civil” camp is larger than Islamists want to believe, but is nevertheless smaller than to properly account for the Islamist anxiety above. The roots of the Brotherhood’s panic must lie elsewhere. So let me propose instead that the Brotherhood and its allies are actually afraid of “the people,” even if they formulate their fears as hostility towards the “civil” camp.

Our panic story betrays a Brotherhood-led regime that has no intention of “representing the people” that it supposedly “represents” forever by identity. In fact, this regime doesn’t seem able even to honor its very Islamic claims — for since they assumed office their rule proceeded without involving anything remotely Islamic.

For four long months now the Brotherhood has not once proposed a policy or undertaken action that derived from anything that could broadly be classified as “Islamic.” They have been basically implementing “secular” policies in the morning while bashing the secularists in the evening. Often their policies went against clear Islamic rulings too. During the past four months, for example, the government has been issuing T-bills at 12 and 13 percent interest and borrowing from banks at a 16 percent interest — and that, if anything, is “usury” from an Islamic point of view. In other words, since its ascendance, the Islamic regime has been only soaking itself in usury and, by extension, sin.

The point to take from this is that their very position against the “civil” camp is false. A ruling regime doesn’t need to trash the opposition to defend Islamic rule; it only needs to implement it. Trashing secularists for not upholding what the Islamist regime doesn’t uphold only hides the fact that the current Islamic regime doesn’t really uphold anything Islamic, that it doesn’t seem to know how to apply their long cherished Islamic ideals and that their intellectual space remains inept to the extent that they need to copy others after promising “the people” to be creative. So the more they fail in this regard, the more they need to trash the “civil” camp, as if this camp is stopping them from keeping their Islamic promise. Had they not had the “civil” to trash they would have had to acknowledge this failure, opening the gate either to the demise of political Islam, or the replacement of the Brotherhood by the next Islamic group in line: the Salafis, who are clearly trying very hard to inherit the Brotherhood's leading position in the Islamic movement. The ascendance of the latter to power would, however, surely lead to a revolution or a military coup in matter of weeks. Better blame it on the “civil” camp, then!

Religion aside, no movement in Egypt showed greater ability to ally with the US and the feloul than the Islamist camp. The Salafis were keen on appeasing Shafiq when they had thought that he had won the elections, and according to Nader Bakkar, the Nour Party coordinated its anti-US demonstrations with the US Embassy. The Brotherhood’s relations with the US are even warmer and include many strategic and tactical agreements that span issues as a far apart as siding against Iran, tearing down the Gaza tunnels under US supervision, and cooperating with Israel and the US to counter “terrorism” in Sinai. Not to mention that the Brotherhood regime didn’t even bother to change the warm formulation of the ambassador appointment letter to Israel that it inherited from the Mubarak regime. Likewise, Morsy appointed prominent feloul as his advisers, including Kamal El Ganzouri, the ex-prime minister, and forced other feloul on many state functions (governors, chief editors of state newspapers, etc). Moreover, the Brotherhood government was keen on developing excellent relations with feloul businessmen, who commonly accompany Morsy on his trips abroad.

I can cite numerous examples on the warm relations between the Brotherhood and the US, and their relations with the feloul too, but I will leave it at stating that upon ascending to power, the Brotherhood was very keen on cultivating excellent relations with these two players. In contrast, large portions of the so-called “civil” camp led the fight against the military’s attempt to reproduce the feloul in new formations.

Setting the Islamist-civil dichotomy aside clarifies our story even more. On doing so, we discover, for example, that the ruling Brotherhood regime attacked practically every social segment of Egyptian society that tried to struggle for its economic rights and protect its interests. Let me point out some of them: almost all types of industrial workers, bus drivers, microbus drivers, railway employees, port workers — and middle class too: teachers, doctors, etc.

In contrast, the Brotherhood regime was careful not to disturb the economic elite, always assuring them that their interests will not be harmed, in rhetoric and actions. And it is quite keen on pleasing international financial institutions too, at the expense of the interests of average Egyptians — as it is overtly negotiating IMF loans that require removing energy subsidies, floating the pound, and is promoting the idea of reducing government employment, and more of what Gamal Mubarak had previously upheld as remedies for the Egyptian economy.

The Brotherhood regime has actually been very antagonistic to interests of “the people,” following the footsteps of the Mubarak regime; and like its predecessor, this is forcing it slowly but surely to rely on the state’s ability to mobilize brute force. A recent report by Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence depicts an extremely bleak picture in this regard. During the first 100 days of Morsy’s rule, the police killed thirty-seven people, tortured eighty-seven in detention, and sexually assaulted seven. Such crimes are usually underreported; it’s therefore proper to assume that these numbers represent but a fraction of what’s really happening on the ground, not to mention the dozens of labor strikes that the police ended by force.

The “civil” that the Brotherhood fears

In the final part, a group that “represents the people” and delivers what the majority of “the people” wants has nothing to be afraid of. The Islamists are nowhere near so, however. The Brotherhood has already established a Mubarak-like regime that is ruling the country against the interests of the great majority of its people in order to preserve US interests and those of the country’s economic elite. More importantly, the Brotherhood knows the repercussions of its biases quite well, as it used to be in the opposition. The panic attacks that I detailed above suggest that it is becoming weary of the limitations of its bet on identity politics and populist rhetoric, and is starting to doubt its ability to garner “the people’s” support as usual. After all, successful populist strategies never depend on rhetoric alone. They actually require delivering some real goodies in exchange for loyalties; populist rhetoric alone doesn’t work well in poverty situations that involve severe reductions in welfare.

The Brotherhood seems to be realizing also that it overused its ability to mask its policies with Islamic packaging — as there is nothing Islamic in continuing Mubarak’s policies, while their overused Islamic claims are starting to appear empty. Their Islamic competitors, the Salafis, are even worse in this regard, for their political vision doesn’t tackle any issues outside limiting personal freedoms. It is therefore normal that any form of resistance to the Brotherhood’s Mubarak-like project would scare them.

If I were in their shoes, I’d be frightened too, for I would know that betting my neck on an American gamble in the region and siding with the same interests and policies that led “the people” to revolt before cannot be stabilized by Islamic chants alone. If I were in their shoes I would also be afraid of my “civil” enemy, for not only does it represent my biggest enemy, even if it is small, it also represents my opposite, and my failure could lead to their success, regardless of their size.

The Brotherhood’s identity politics that led to the creation of the “civil” camp now seems to be their biggest nightmare. The more their policies and biases undermine the interests of "the people" that they supposedly represent by identity, the more they fear "the people," the more they need to frame their fears in identity-terms by attacking their imagined opposite (the civil). The problem with this strategy is that it can overload identity politics to the extent of implosion. It also has a limited shelf-life, as much of what's happening in Egypt now testifies.

An initial version of this article was originally published on
Egypt Independent.




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