I cannot profess to be more than a close observer of Egyptian politics and history. I hope my Egypt interlocutors allow me to make some observations about what might end up concerning all of us who care about, or teach about, the region.
I will focus my observations on the reasons behind the polarized discourse on Egypt, both inside and outside the country, and conclude with commentary about the advent of a new liberalism. These observations are based on more than six weeks of monitoring closely Egyptian media of all varieties, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiyya, and a coterie of European and American media outlets and publications, including the usual suspects (Washington Post, New York Times, Economist, Guardian, etc.) and numerous blogs and twitter accounts, as well as some reporting/interviews I conducted in/on Egypt in the past year. The words below are intended as a reflection, not an account, and will not include particular authors/media in question so as not to single out venues. It is all around us.
“Good Morning, I’m Late, But an Egypt Expert Now!”
Many commentators, on all sides of the political spectrum, come to the Egyptian scene as spectators who did not closely follow the events between 11 February 2011 and 30 June 2013. And they know much, much less about the Egyptian polity prior to 2011. Thus, judgments often proceed from a priori positions regarding false binaries such as “Islamism” vs. “secularism,” as though there is no history prior to 2011, or as though there was no record of policies to judge during Morsi’s presidency. More often than not, analyses embrace all-encompassing narratives that present Egypt as a battlefield featuring only a few actors (“Islamists vs. liberals”; “Army vs. Muslim Brotherhood”; “Revolutionaries vs. Counter-Revolutionaries”). Such accounts effectively erase the many processes and actors that do not fit into these binary categories. As with Syria, we end up witnessing entrenched ideational/impression-based camps rather than dynamic analysis that is amenable to revision. The discourse on Egypt becomes more important than what is actually happening in Egypt. The same applies to local Egyptian media if observers are glued to one venue.
“The Brotherhood is Only a Party that Opposed Dictatorship”
Many commentators know about the Egyptian state or dictatorship under Mubarak, including its economic exploits and the marriage of money and power; concessions to, and collaboration with, Israel; and the repression of political alternatives. However, most know little about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood nor for that matter the organization’s preferences, behavior, and policies after Morsi’s election. The most egregious common mis-analysis is the jettisoning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in cajoling the army and re-entrenching the security state and some of its social and political corollaries under Morsi’s leadership, and before. The idea that the Brotherhood was also being used by the army (as Tamarod was) is noted. More important, however, is that there were explicit decisions by the Brotherhood/Morsi to strengthen the hand of the ancient regime and a near absence of an institutional curtailing of the security state’s power or the probability of its abuse of power. The Brotherhood, for those who only see a past of an underdog opposing authoritarian rule, is much more than and much less than that. Their social and economic record prior to 2011, notwithstanding the services they provided, is very much of a black box, or irrelevant, to many commentators and instant “experts.”
The Media’s Binary
The media have played an exceptionally delusional role inside and outside Egypt, supporting partisan narrative in their maximalist version. Unending and thorough demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood was countered by most Brotherhood supporters/defenders with utter neglect of their excesses, complicity with the army/fuloul, and transgressions, especially after 2011. Watching one or the other type of television stations (or reading one or the other publication) exclusively prejudices outcomes beyond reason. Most dangerous has been the vitriol in most liberal Egyptian media against the Muslim Brotherhood and pretty much everything they stand for today or stood for in the past. This discourse mobilized not just bodies, but minds, preparing them to anticipate, accept, and perhaps justify violent and brutal action against them. The reactionary Muslim Brotherhood equivalent about the “other” is and was at play, in media and action. Perhaps we are accustomed to it and were unmoved. Yet this reactionary equivalent of the Brotherhood pales in comparison with the institutional and coercive action-backed discourse against them.
Many proceed by privileging a regional not a local and domestic gaze. They thus interpret events inside Egypt in relation to external factors and relations that are independent from the streets and in the corridors of Egypt. Sometimes, the gaze is based on an anti-imperial lens. At other times, it proceeds from observations regarding the progress or regress of the Arab uprisings. Lessons from other uprising cases are read on to the Egyptian landscape and used to guide judgment and commentary. The regional reverberations will no doubt exponentially increase, but we are not there, quite yet. We will get there if the battle on the ground intensifies and turns into a complete zero-sum game between the Brotherhood and the state (and perhaps new players), without a possibility of a third powerful domestic player intervening. This will also increase the level of unprofessional reporting by major regional media outlets, each preserving its narrative and interests. It could invite the kind of asinine grandstanding and self-righteousness so common with respect to the Syrian abyss.
Burning Churches and Sectarian Violence
Sectarian and seemingly sectarian violence and the disgusting acts of burning Churches (not a recent trend) must be vehemently condemned. But as with the Iraq situation, these horrendous acts must be put in a broader perspective. Some commentators privilege these heinous acts at the expense of all else that happened in Egypt recently. This is not by any means about us needing to “understand” church burnings and sectarian violence, especially vis-à-vis a minority group. In fact, such intolerance, growing in the region, must be confronted head on at all levels. The point rather is to interrogate and debunk the segmented and abridged realities and corresponding discourses that confine one’s attention to mutually exclusive pain and atrocities. Clearly there is more to the story. Don’t get me started on belief and the right to non-belief in anything supernatural, especially the all-important “freedom FROM Religion.”
Dehumanizing the Brotherhood
This factor deserves its own category. Those who know the Brotherhood’s history, particularly their official positions and relations under Morsi, know that much of what the Brotherhood has stood for recently is not laudable, to say the least—and the list is very long and disturbing. But the degree and kind of dehumanization that Brotherhood supporters are subjected to in the Egyptian media and in many hearts and minds are not only horrendous, but also deeply blinding.
Core Issues Under the Surface
The emphasis in much, if not all, of what we write is on politics and process, siding with this or with the other party for a given set of reasons. What is missing, and what will emerge in due time is that what we are witnessing in Egypt now is also a struggle over defining or imposing a common identity. This process was suspended under Mubarak and perhaps even before due to the proliferation of the security state and the subsuming of politics and difference. Such struggles have surfaced after February 2011 with the expansion of political space and the resumption of politics, however imperfect. Not all has been lost, but it will be a long journey, and all the longer if external actors join in. I will not comment on the different options and discourses regarding “Egypt’s identity” that are being contested or supported as this merits its own independent and careful treatment. Suffice it to say that such core issues are at play whether or not they are explicitly professed. In a report I wrote after witnessing the Roxy clashes on the streets of Cairo on the infamous night of 5 December 2012, I posited that “[t]his is not just some skirmish or group clash. It is a visceral and definitive battle about the future of Egypt.” We are in the midst of it today and I am afraid the media will continue to play a divisive and unproductive role. (very sorry for quoting myself. I know, it’s horrible, but I’m trying to indicate a thread).
The State Discourse on Terrorism
Don’t get me started on how some private media have spun this discourse. I am now convinced that the mere invocation of the phrase “war on terror” (however “popular”) by any government is akin to justifying scrupulous action, or a “war of terror.” Governments as politically disparate as the United States, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Russia have partook in this now tired portrayal. And it is a good reason to not take these governments’ claims seriously before deeper investigation. On the other hand, the mainstream discourse in the US media is astoundingly persistent in its utter disconnection from struggles on the ground. Save for the implications of US power, such reporting is best ignored.
The Triumph of Liberalism Anew
But we must also pay attention to the connections between such discourses of powerful actors and their supporters. In that vein, we are witnessing the rise of a refurbished Arab liberal discourse that mimics that of the United States, centered on a combination of privilege, membership, categorization, social hierarchies, and a healthy dose of Islamophobia. Such discourses are unique in that they sanction the right to use the utmost violence, legitimately, in fighting the kind of violence that disrupts privilege and hierarchies. And such discourses cannot proceed without distinct categorization of at least two groups such that one is somehow expendable for the sake of civility, civilization, democracy, freedom, and so on. Thanks to the media, such categorization was in ample supply, and succeeded immensely by focusing exclusively on “nation” and “progress,” with obstacles to be removed.
What is camouflaged in such liberal categorization are real and divisive social hierarchies that are vertical, dealing with questions of labor, exploitation, distribution, and economic power. This is not to minimize the “political” crisis at hand, but to assert the importance of a deeper gaze and social reality that, unfortunately, will likely withstand any resolution of the situation at hand. And then we’re back to the forty million+ Egyptians who are destitute, and a political economy that “must” focus on investment, growth, and “trickle-down” theories with the support of international financial institutions. The media will be cheering with pockets of irrelevant resistance, long after the Muslim Brotherhood (dubbed “evil”) are out of the picture.
In the Meantime . . .
Coming from a poisoned and explosive discourse on Syria, I still believe matters are less complex, and certainly less brutal, in Egypt. But the developments in the latter case are no less consequential. We have a responsibility to ask more of ourselves as observers, writers, and analysts. Maybe a very productive place to start—away from the details of the days’ events—is in exploring the ascendance of a new liberalism allied with political and, to a significant extent in some cases, economic power.
[This article was translated into Arabic by Osama Esber here]