Angela Davis in Egypt: on feminist solidarity

angela-davis

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about feminist solidarity and how it can be created. On the one hand, the legacy of Western feminism has made solidarity an extremely difficult feat, while on the other hand, there are multiple examples of successful feminist organizing between different groups of women. I have always been interested in the ways in which non-white women internalize or resist hegemonic Western ideas, especially within the feminist movement. How do Arab feminists see African-American feminists, for example? Do they internalize Western feminist misconceptions about black women, or do they more readily identify with black feminists and see them as allies against both global patriarchy and Western feminism that tends to exclude non-white women? I realise this is a very broad question and that it differs from woman to woman, but at the same time the tactics of divide and rule exercised by hegemonic groups often tend to be very successful and for this reason I have always been particularly interested in solidarity between different groups of feminists.

I just finished a chapter by Angela Davis in her book ‘Women, culture and politics’ which was based on her experiences visiting Egypt. I had been looking for this chapter for months, because I thought it would be an especially interesting text on how transnational feminism could look like if practiced from a postcolonial, Marxist perspective. Angela Davis is of course one of the most famous African American feminists, known for her Communist views and anti-racism activism. I also thought it would be interesting in terms of understanding how a feminist from an African-American background would relate to feminists from an Egyptian background. In other words, would she reproduce white feminist ideas about Egyptian women or relate to Egyptian women because of her own (negative) experiences with Western feminism?

She begins her story with this:

When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectemy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.

Davis therefore already makes clear her position: she doesn’t want to be part of a project that aims to save Egyptian women from female circumcision. She goes on to talk about how she had trouble with the “myopic concentration” on female circumcision in U.S. feminist literature on African women, which often implied that women would magically be liberated once they managed to end female circumcision, or “once white Western feminists accomplished this for them.” These feminists sensationalise the issue to such a degree that they become insensitive to the dignity of the women in question. This in turn makes the act of solidarity impossible because these women are not equal human beings but rather objects to be saved.

Davis draws the connection between the obsession with female circumcision on the part of American feminists with their obsession with birth control and black women:

It is easy to understand why that movement, as righteous as its intentions may have been, aroused hostility in Afro-American women, because it often portrayed us as bestial and oversexed, indiscriminately reproducing in such numbers that the rule of the white majority might be ultimately challenged.

This is the first connection Davis draws between Egyptian women and African-American women, and it is in relation to the way Western feminists have approached both groups. She goes on to point out that while many Americans express disgust at female circumcision, they don’t think twice about the lengths to which some American women go in order to surgically change their bodies and conform to social standards of beauty that are set by a capitalist patriarchal system. She ends the anecdote by writing: “I realised that I could not in good conscience write about genital mutilation and other examples of sexual oppression in Egypt without acknowledging the manipulation of these problems by those who fail to consider the importance of the larger economic-political context of male supremacy.” She therefore situates herself in solidarity with Egyptian women right from the start: she is sensitive to the way in which female circumcision has become an issue of ‘white women saving brown women’ and clearly states that she would never be a part of that.

A quote from an Egyptian feminist named Dr. Shehida Elbaz whom she meets is especially striking:

Women in the West should know that we have a stand in relation to them concerning our issues and our problems. We reject their patronising attitude It is connected with built-in mechanisms of colonialism and with their sense of superiority. Maybe some of them don’t do it consciously but it is there. They decide what problems we have, how we should face them, without even possessing the tools to know our problems.

A recurrent theme throughout the chapter is her focus on class, women, and global capitalism. For example, she mentions the many homeless people she came across on her trip from the airport. It is not new to hear visitors comment on the prevalence of poverty when they visit Egypt. What struck me, however, was that she explicitly linked it to Sadat and capitalism:

This (homelessness) was the the legacy of Sadat’s open-door policy: the transnational corporations that had greedily rushed into Egypt under the guise of promoting economic development had created more unemployment, more poverty, and more homelessness.

She then linked this increase of poverty with sexual relations, which was very different from other feminists who have visited Egypt and spoken about sexual oppression(s). Instead of approaching it from a cultural or religious perspective, she made the clear links between the economy, liberalisation, and the effects on the family and women.

Elbaz argues that Egyptian women began to suffer more after the open-door policy and the new connections with the US and Israel. She quotes Hoda Badran:

The economic system in Egypt, because it is tied to the West, is hindered from being productive. Egypt is being transformed into a consumer society. In a situation where you don’t have jobs and people try to find scapegoats…that is why there is more prejudice against women. Also in a country which has been transformed into a consumer society, it is easy, through the mass media, to use women as sex objects.

Another interesting anecdote was when Angela was having dinner with women at the house of an Egyptian feminist and she mentioned that she had been asked to write an essay on Egyptian women and sex. Before she could explain that she had decided not to, the room erupted into anger. She writes about how her initial response was to be defensive, especially when she saw how angry the women were. “I laboured to convince myself to refrain from attempting to defend my own position. After all, was I not in Egypt to learn about the way Egyptian women themselves interpreted the role of sexuality in their lives and their struggle? And was I not especially interested in their various responses to the unfortunate chauvinism characterising attitudes in the capitalist countries toward the sexual dimension of Arab women’s lives?”

She managed to overcome her initial defensiveness (an almost reflexive response) and instead try and learn from the experience. This made me wonder why it is that so many other feminists can’t do the same? She went on to say that she understood the anger: the Egyptian women she was with were emphasising that an isolated challenge to sexual inequality would not solve the problems associated with economic and political dependency, which affect both women and men.

Latifa Zayat said this to Angela:

If you were simply an American research worker, I wouldn’t have come to see you. I would have even boycotted this meeting, because I know that through this research we are being turned into animals, into guinea pigs. I would boycott any American who is doing research on Arab women because I know that we are being tested, we are being listed in catalogs, we are being defined in terms of sexuality for reasons which are not in our own interests.

I think that is honestly the best statement I have ever read on why social science research on Egyptian women is so problematic.

To go back to the discussion about sex and Egyptian women, it struck me how much of a sensitive topic this still is. This is not to say that sexual justice is not important to Egyptian women and men, or that Egyptian feminists ignore it. Rather it is to unpack the reactions on the part of these Egyptian feminists to the suggestion that Angela write on sex and nothing else. The regular obsession on the part of the West (in which Angela was situated by these women) with “sex” in the Arab world was and is tiring, and if anything only leads to a situation in which it becomes less of a priority precisely because it is obsessed over by foreigners. This not only serves to separate it from economic, social and political issues which are all interrelated, but it also constructs Egyptian men/culture as backwards and barbaric, as well as static.

Angela Davis goes on to quote Fathia al Assal’s comment about how women should not be shy to discuss sexual liberation, since history shows that private property emerged at the moment when women became the sexual property of their husbands. This constant linking between women’s problems and the economic situation is a trend throughout the chapter.

Even when it comes to the veil, Davis is careful to note not only the problematic Western obsession with it, but also the different reasons for the veiling resurgence in Egypt, as well as the fact that it differs from class to class. She shows through her conversations with many women how it is a very complex subject with literally hundreds of understandings and explanations. That said, her focus on the veil even after she critiques the tendency of Western feminists to focus on it shows her pervasive the fascination with veiling is.

It is clear that Davis identities with Egyptian feminists on multiple levels. One important one is in the way they conceptualise patriarchy, which they see as a system that oppresses both men and women, and as a set of relations that constructs masculinities and femininities that are harmful to everyone. This means that feminism’s goal is not to wage war against men, but rather to wage war against patriarchy, alongside men if possible.

What becomes clear from the chapter is the willingness to learn and listen on the part of Angela Davis. She came to Egypt expecting not to “know” anything, and this made her receptive to the multiple viewpoints and experiences she encountered. She didn’t come to help or save, but just to see. Even when she was angrily attacked by Egyptian women for mentioning an article on sex; even when she came into contact with practices she found different; even when she found herself unable to communicate with many Egyptian women; she was always open and self-critical. She constantly questioned herself and her opinions, and not once made a condescending or patronising comment or observation. She was constantly aware of her own privilege and bias, and was always making connections between Egypt and the imperialist countries (especially the US) and between different oppressive structures that affect Egyptian women.

So now I want to ask: how many feminists who have visited or worked on Egypt can say they’ve done the same?

Transnational feminist solidarity is possible. But it means unlearning, forgetting, and being humble and open. I started reading the chapter hoping that her experiences would show that solidarity is possible, as difficult as it is. And they did. I’m sure this is partly because she is a Communist and because as an African-American woman is sensitive to Western feminism’s problems. But it also seems to be because she has adopted a critical perspective that allows her to constantly question herself before questioning others, something that I am sure is crucial to any relationship of solidarity.

Her final quote:

The goal of women’s equality in the fullest sense might not be attainable in Egypt’s immediate future, but I felt profoundly moved by the invincible determination of so many women to keep the fires of their struggle burning.

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Reactionary feminism and the need to be “modern”

‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.

Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.

This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.

This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?

Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).

The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.

The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.

This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.

* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.

On the Muslim Brotherhood and the national security/terrorism narrative

Military in Tahrir. Source: BBC.
Military in Tahrir. Source: BBC.

I don’t want to use this post to discuss what happened earlier today or to predict what will happen next. I want to instead focus on how the international discourse of terrorism and national security is currently being used in Egypt.

Prior to the June 30 protests, the Muslim Brotherhood were criticized in a number of ways by people against them: they were seen as inefficient, corrupt, fundamentalist, focused on power grabbing, and exclusionary. Post the military intervention, however, a new framing was introduced: the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists. This framing can be explained by analyzing its origin (the military) as well as the broader global narrative of terrorism.

The Muslim Brotherhood have long been portrayed as a sinister, secretive and radical organization that wants to co-opt power in order to establish an Islamic state (locally) and an Islamic caliphate (globally). These assumptions constituted the grounds for the terrorism narrative, and since they have been reproduced over decades by different Egyptian regimes, constitute a powerful narrative in the public imagination. In particular, the continual link made between the MB and violence cannot be underestimated. This again fits into global view of Islamism: Islamists are regularly portrayed as overly and irrationally violent; as exclusionary, and as so dangerous that they cannot even be negotiated with. (An important debate that isn’t within the scope of this article is the extent to which the MB have reproduced these narratives about themselves. E.g. to what extent do they view and speak about themselves within this framework that has been set by global powers.)

Following the election of Muhammad Morsi, however, it became clear that the MB enjoyed a lot of legitimacy in Egypt (a fact that is not surprising considering they were the most organized political force in Egypt post-Jan 25 2011). Thus any attacks against them were made based on their governing, as well as on other stereotypes often associated with Islamism: specifically the way they treat women and the way they treat minorities. This is not to say that Morsi & the MB did not have problematic approaches to either group; I am simply reflecting on how the approach to criticizing the MB was already based on assumptions that, again, operate on a global level.

Immediately after the military intervention on July 3, the framing of the MB in Egyptian media began to change. To simplify, they began to be shown as violent, irrational, desperate for power, unwilling to negotiate and difficult to deal with. A new word entered the discussion: terrorism. Along with this word came an entire discourse operating in many countries today: that of national security. Suddenly the military had to exercise its power in order to preserve Egyptian national security – all under the assumption that the MB are a terrorist organization that will not hesitate to bring down Egypt.

My aim here is not to discuss the strength of these claims. I do not want to answer how violent or unwilling to cooperate the MB were (and are), nor do I want to discuss whether they can be labelled a terrorist organization. Similarly, the discussion of whether al-Qaeda is what American officials say it is is a separate one from the discussion of how American officials use that construct to justify certain actions. In that vein, I want to briefly touch on what the military has been able to do through portraying the MB in this particular manner.

The entire public debate has now centered on the issue of stability and security. Many are convinced that the MB pose a significant threat to the stability of Cairo and other cities, as well as to the security of the country as a whole. This, in turn, has allowed the military to emerge as the protectors of this “stability” and thus as a necessary part of the Egyptian political scene. This is not entirely new – the military intervening on July 1 was welcomed by many precisely because they were worried that a bloodbath/civil war was coming. So already the military were seen as saviours/protectors, a view that has now deepened because the military has not only repeated it, but actively influenced events in order to portray themselves that way.

Sinai is another important example. The portrayal of the “bad guys” in the Sinai conflict as either radical Bedouins or armed militants (often Hamas) has a long history in Egypt, and has been used by regime after regime to justify the military’s actions and strong presence in Sinai. The conflict with the Bedouins in particular is complicated and revolves around issues of nationhood and territory – many Bedouins do not accept Egypt as a nation state and thus reject state authority, a position which poses a key threat to both the state and the military. The conflict in Sinai occurring now is thus framed as a response to radical militants who cannot be negotiated with.

At the same time, the “Hamas narrative” has strengthened over the past few weeks and has now become the key justification for many of the military’s activities in that region. The closing of the border with Gaza was justified using the rhetoric of Islamic militants, and thus also falls under the terrorism frame of reference. The use of this framing in relation to Hamas has in turn created anti-Palestinian sentiment in some segments of the Egyptian population. Again, we see the links between local and global: Hamas have also played a crucial role in the international arena in discussions revolving around terrorism/national security.

While it is difficult to predict where this is going, it is good to be cautious about celebrating or rationalizing what the military is currently doing. These past few decades have shown how the importance of national security has been deeply internalized, and how many “democratic sacrifices” have been made in its name (particularly in the United States, a country from which the narrative can be said to originate). While there is little doubt that there is some truth to the claim that “there are terrorists out there” – the entire narrative is built by self-serving politicians, military men and economic elites, supported by the media and think tanks. This should give us pause, and make us question what they are saving us from, as well as where this saving will lead us to.

The masses have not revolted anew out of a desire for military rule or love for the feloul liberal alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.  They have revolted anew because Morsi and the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution (Sameh Naguib).

A final note on the military. Everything the military have done thus far has been to serve their own interests, as well as to prevent the January 25 2011 revolution from overthrowing them.

For if al Sisi had not intervened to dislodge Morsi, the revolution would not have stopped with the overthrow of Morsi and the Brotherhood, but was – and still remains – competent to transform into a complete social revolution which would oust the entire capitalist state, including the leaders of the military institution (Sameh Naguib).

The military have consistently portrayed themselves as the Egyptian nation. This rhetoric is strong and powerful because it relies on more than seventy years of socialization; it relies on historical events such as the wars with Israel; and it relies on the legitimacy all militaries enjoy within the nation state system. However this should not prevent us from seeing them as political actors with their own interests, which they will not hesitate to protect.

The military institution is hostile to the Egyptian revolution; it got rid of Mubarak to save itself from the crossfire of the revolution. The military is now getting rid of the Brotherhood and Morsi, its erstwhile allies, in fear of the time when the earthquake of the revolution will reach it. And just as broad sections of the populace were affected by the illusion of army neutrality and its stand with the revolution at the beginning of SCAF rule, they are affected today by the lying propaganda about the heroism and revolutionary allegiance of al Sisi and his generals. But just as the masses quickly left behind that propaganda in the days of Tantawi through experience and struggle, they will pass anew through the illusion that “the army and the people are one hand” in the weeks and months to come (Sameh Naguib).

Many foreign analysts, politicians and journalists are now trying to portray the military as the barrier to democracy, and the MB as the victims, neglecting to see that the military are using an international narrative to attack and discredit the MB. In other words, what the military is doing now is using a narrative that originated in the US to carry out actions that are widely condemned by American analysts and politicians. The terrorism/national security framing has become the number one legitimate justification for acts against enemies, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, whistleblowers, or communists. It is important to look at where this framing originated, and whether analysts have been as vocal in denouncing it when it was employed by other governments.

The reason the Egyptian military is able to use it so effectively is precisely because Egyptians, along with everybody else in the world, have been socialized to accept it as not only legitimate, but as unquestionable. The nation state structure requires these types of discourses, that arouse both patriotism and fear, so that institutions such as the state and the military can then act without impunity in order to “protect” the “people.”

Unfortunately we never think of the “people” who are attacked, because the discourse has already rendered them as outside “the nation” and therefore as sub-human.

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Quotes from Sameh Naguib are from this piece.

Disclaimer: although I know it will happen anyway, I want to clarify that I am not “taking sides with the MB” by writing this. I am discussing the military and how they are using events and narratives to justify their actions. Whether these actions are “wrong” or “right” is not what I tried to address here. I protested on June 30 (for better or worse) and I was against MB policies during the year they were in power. But I don’t think criticizing them should be our only focus now, since the military is obviously the bigger problem.

On what happened in Egypt last night

Photo courtesy of Amanda Rogers
Photo courtesy of Amanda Rogers

What we witnessed yesterday was a well-thought out plan by the military to corner the Muslim Brotherhood and make them sign their own death sentence. This plan only became clear by the end of the night, and by then most people were happy to have the military “deal with” the MB. After the speech by Badie (who everyone had thought was under arrest) it became clear that the point of letting him speak was so he could incite the MB base to go to Tahrir & Maspero, something that was likely to end violently. Once the violence escalated, it took the military and police more than two hours to intervene—why? Were they waiting for just enough to violence so they could be seen as heroes saving the day? Probably. Once they intervened, the situation calmed down and later both MB’s Khairat el Shater and Salafi Hazem abou Ismail were arrested.

It is unclear what will happen next. Will the military and MB make a deal, or will the military use the manufactured and widespread resentment towards the MB to crush them? The animosity between the military and the MB dates back more than sixty years, and while there have been moments of coexistence, generally it has been a tense relationship. It has also been a relationship which the military has dominated—it has arrested, repressed, tortured, and killed MB members (as have leaders of self-identified secular regimes such as Sadat and Mubarak). In fact the entire MB history has been one of alternately appeasing and challenging power—often the two at the same time. But will this strategy work now? One could argue that they tried this during their year in power, and it failed. Once the military saw their chance to get rid of the MB, they grabbed it, faster than many had expected.

What is clear is that the situation is very fluid. What is also clear is that we are under military rule. But I’m going to do the opposite of what every single analyst and commentator on Egypt is doing and say that this is not new. Yes, there was a military coup on Monday. This coup helped make the military a visible power in Egypt again. It did not signal the “return” of the military to politics. Similarly, those arguing that Egypt’s revolutionaries have made the wrong choice by supporting (supporting is a strong word)—accepting maybe—the military’s intervention because this signals a military interfering in politics: wake up. The Egyptian military has always and probably will always interfere in politics. And guess what, this isn’t a purely Egyptian phenomenon.

Whether Morsi was president or not, the military was and is there. Their vast economic and political empire, the power they exercise, their status as the only coherent and strong elite faction in Egypt at the moment, and their ability to not only learn from past mistakes but also to change their own leadership to adapt to changing times means that the military is not an actor to underestimate.

What does all of this mean for June 30, Tamarrod and the millions of protesters who took to the streets? In my view (and of course I’m biased, as is everyone) those protests represent something separate from the events that overtook them a day later. Those protests represent Egyptians unhappy and impatient with what they saw with a regime less interested in the revolution’s goals and more interested in power grabbing. They saw the economy getting worse, they saw an MB elite that was neoliberal, they saw the social fabric of the country continue to deteriorate, and they saw the increasing polarization of political forces in the country.

Two questions continue to bother me, as someone that participated in June 30, and they are linked. Did the MB have a fair chance at governing, or was the counter-revolution too strong? And did we, Egyptians, give the MB enough time? I am still leaning towards the answer that the MB could have relied on revolutionary support (which they had a lot of when Morsi was elected) and used that to challenge the old regime and the counter-revolution. Instead, he tried to appease the old regime, and when that didn’t work, he tried to challenge them. This strategy failed and was the price was his presidency. Why didn’t he just work with the revolutionaries? (I debated this with some amazing people on twitter, which you can find here.)

That said it is becoming clearer and clearer how powerful the counter-revolution was against Morsi. It became almost taboo in liberal circles to speak of a counter-revolution or a deep state: anything that went wrong was purely Morsi’s fault (and even more problematic, it was his fault because he was an Islamist). This is simplistic. Throughout the year I spoke about how it was unlikely that the “Brotherhoodization” of institutions was happening this fast, or that a “deep state” didn’t exist. Of course it did. And by deep state I mean networks of power relations and institutions that are produced to serve the interests of certain elites and certain goals, and that continue to reproduce even after a revolution. Above all, it is important to look at the money. Who continued to be Egypt’s economic elite during Morsi’s presidency? Sure, the MB had some economic elite (even before they came to power)—but what about the big businessmen from the Mubarak era? Were they all in jail? Were their companies all shut down? Who still had most of the economic power?

(And by the way, while this is becoming clear now, people who are claiming they knew all along that feloul were the ones running the show: okay, why didn’t you say something this past year? Suddenly it’s clear that the feloul are back and you knew all along?)

Do I regret going out on June 30 and supporting the movement? No.

Was I happy when the military intervened and announced the transition? No.

Do I think it could have gone any other way? No.

Does that mean June 30 just shouldn’t have happened at all, just to avoid the military coming back to power visibly? Absolutely not.

June 30 was something to be proud of. What happened the next day was not, as inevitable as it was. The support for the military, however, has its own history (one many analysts would do well to actually study). It is a respected, popular institution and one that has become even more respected in these unstable times. This does not negate the fact that the military are strategic political players whose aim is to preserve their interests. It does not negate the fact that the military have purposively launched a campaign against the MB so they could then imprison them. It also doesn’t mean that the revolution is over. Egyptians went against the military before, it’ll happen again. An important question is whether a revolution against the military can happen now, when so many Egyptians support the army? I know many (myself included) who are aware that the next step of the revolution has to be against the military and the Ministry of Interior: but how? If it happens now, it’ll be impossible to overcome them.

Before I end, a small note on solidarity.

It is no surprise to see condescending comments and simplistic analysis from the media, especially from western media, the majority of whom still haven’t managed to discuss the Middle East in a non-problematic way. What shocked me this time around was seeing this same condescending attitude and simplistic analysis from other people in the Middle East.

We get it. You’re surprised people were celebrating the military intervening. That’s fine, so were many Egyptians. Except we also understood it as the result of long processes of socialization and complicated historical events that have created the military as a positive institution in Egypt’s collective memory.

If you were so confused, outraged, upset, angry (and I kind of wonder why it even got to you this much)—why not engage with people on the ground? What is the point of snide comments? Of jokes at the expense of people dying? Of “I told you so”? Yesterday, as soon as the army began shooting pro-Morsi supporters, I saw a barrage of tweets basically saying: “ha, we knew it, it the military is bad, Egyptians are stupid” etc.

What you’re doing is what you complain western people keep doing to you. You’re removing agency, you’re simplifying the narrative, and you’re doing it to make yourself look more knowledgeable, more objective, more authoritative. Egyptians are stupid and irrational because they didn’t see this coming, while we did see it coming. Well done. Shoving people’s mistakes in their face is always the way to go. The situation in Egypt is complex, moving fast, and many made a tough choice, while others (me included) don’t even believe they had a choice to make. Many also felt the military intervening was necessary to prevent a bloodbath. Finally, people were celebrating the achievement of the goals of June 30, not just the military coup.

It’s not about critiquing what is happening. Critique with nuance is good, and critique without a condescending, know-it-all attitude is also good. Not everything is about fitting events into your discourse so you can be the one who was right about everything. I know this isn’t the first time for this to happen – it has happened to Syrians, to Iraqis, to Palestinians and to others. Maybe it’s selfish to only write about it when it happens to us.

“The failure of media and pundits to both recognize and project the nuances of the current conflict in Egypt through their negligence of people’s agency in shaping the political outcomes is both pathetic and shameful.” (Khaled Shaalan)

Yes, and this is why it’s important to not ignore the fact that June 30 came first, and that the military could not have acted without it. This means something has changed in Egypt after 2011.

My thoughts on what is happening in Egypt

Source: AP
Source: AP

As always, Egypt has managed to surpass and tear apart all expectations and write its own script. At the same time, I feel like my thoughts are so scattered and contradictory that it would be good to write some of them down, so I can remember them later.

Last night President Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military. To deny that this was—technically—a coup, is problematic. The military intervened and influenced the outcome of a political deadlock.

But my instinctive response is not to feel as devastated as I thought I would. The military’s move was not as bad as I had expected—they did not announce that they will be running the country during the transition, and in my opinion el Sisi made a remarkably smart move by appointing the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as interim president. Understanding the history of the military as well as their interests suggests that the Egyptian military does not want to openly govern Egypt. Rather they want to protect their (vast) economic interests, through protecting their political privileges (no government oversight, no accountability, and no transparency). The period following the 2011 revolution, during which SCAF was in charge of the country, was negative for the institution of the military. They lost legitimacy and support following a series of events including the Maspero massacre, the Port Said massacre and the virginity testing scandal. Additionally, questions were being raised about the economic empire the military controlled, as well as their role in political life.

So the military learned their lesson: ruling the country means being accountable to it (post-revolution, that is), so why risk that? Why not continue to exercise power from behind the scenes, while appointing a civilian interim president? Of course the military is a problematic institution (as it is in any country) and of course this is not an ideal situation. But by focusing solely on the military intervention, the grassroots mobilization of millions of Egyptians on June 30 is completely erased from the narrative.

But at the same time, I feel like I should be feeling more devastated, and less calm. This is the military we’re talking about. The most powerful institution in the country that has proven itself capable of brutality & authoritarianism. Of course I’m wary, as is everyone I know. But there is also a feeling of inevitability: this was bound to happen. Along with a feeling of relief, because the demands of the protesters were met. But the feeling of being scared is still there. (Yes, I know the military is still there. But how is that new? It was there before 2011, after 2011, after Morsi, and it’s there now.)

The reality is that June 30 came first. And it didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a popular response to widespread discontent with Morsi’s presidency.

The masses have not revolted anew out of a desire for military rule or love for the feloul liberal alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.  They have revolted anew because Morsi and the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution.

In fact, Brotherhood rule deepened the same policies as the Mubarak regime, of impoverishment and corruption, and the desperate defense of big business interests in the service of American and Zionist interests. (Sameh Naguib)

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, being elected does not mean being allowed to do whatever you want. Morsi’s policies were problematic and were taking Egypt down a road many Egyptians did not want to go down. The protests on June 30 were bigger than those during the 2011 revolution, and that’s saying something. The demands were clear: Morsi should step down, and there should be early presidential elections. This is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood no longer have a place in Egyptian politics. Most protesters I spoke to said they wanted the MB to be part of the political scene—but not at the exclusion of everyone else. Moreover, Egypt has no other mechanisms through which people can express their political discontent.

There was anger at the worsening economic situation, at the instability, at the lack of political inclusion. Granted, these problems were inherited from Mubarak (which is why it is dangerous and stupid to romanticize the Mubarak regime), but Morsi did not appear to be addressing them.

So people responded. And pushed. Until it was clear that Morsi had no option but to step down, which he refused to do (again, understandable considering the way the MB have historically been treated by the state, the army and the police).

APTOPIX-Mideast-Egypt_Horo-7

The question of the old regime is an important one. There is no doubt that the 2011 revolution did not bring down the regime in its entirety. There is also no doubt that the Egyptian state did not magically transform itself into an “Ikhwan-state” in less than one year. Importantly, the same economic elite pre-2011 were active post-2011, in addition to the economic elite from the Muslim Brotherhood. Allegiances and alliances don’t shift that fast, and so of course there was influence from the old regime and old elites, especially since the military was still powerful. But the million-dollar question is: how much influence? Can this explain every mistake Morsi made? Can it account for all of the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood?

I don’t know.

Things are complicated.

So the conclusion is that things are complicated. There are so many historical trajectories that are coming together to create the current situation in Egypt:

  • The position of the military in the Egyptian collective memory and consciousness.
  • The behaviour of the military during the 2011 transition as well as before and after, and its position as Egypt’s powerhouse.
  • The exclusion, repression and murder of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hands of the state, police and military since 1952.
  • The monumental psychological shift experienced by Egyptians in 2011 that has made it impossible to govern Egyptians without accountability.
  • The nature of the Egyptian state, which continues to reproduce itself in specific ways, particularly institutionally.
  • The fact that many Egyptians do support the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, and now feel completely excluded.

Things are definitely complicated.

But people are happy. Not all people. The widespread arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members are a bad sign, there is no doubt about that. The way things play out during this transition will determine the next phase of the revolution. What is happening now – the mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members – is not a promising sign, and confirms the fears everyone has about the military. Again, the history of military-Brotherhood relations is important. But what option is there but to wait?

we must be consistent in opposing all forms of abuse and repression to which the Islamists will be exposed in the form of arrests and closures of satellite channels and newspapers, for what happens today to the Islamists will happen tomorrow to the workers and the leftists. (Sameh Naguib)

In fact there is also this strong feeling of helplessness. We go and protest but to what extent is it meaningful? Won’t it always be co-opted by one elite or another, last time the Muslim Brotherhood, this time the military? That feeling of creating change during protests is quickly replaced by a feeling of powerlessness when you hear about the meetings happening between political elites. Many (including myself) want to defend allegations that this is terrible because we were there on Sunday and know that it shouldn’t have turned out like this. We know people shouldn’t be thrown in jail, we know Islamists shouldn’t be tried faster than Mubarak & co. But somehow it feels like that will happen.

And then what? At the bottom of all of this is the Egyptian military, who since 1952 have structured the state and have ruled the country, whether directly or indirectly. There is no getting around the fact that if the revolution is going to succeed, the state and the economy have to be de-militarized.

The question is how?

(Oh, and a side-note to all foreign (western and non-western) observers, analysts, commentators and whatever else: you can ask why. You can ask how. You can ask what next. You can say you are worried.

But please don’t be condescending, petty and rude. Don’t insult or deny Egyptian intelligence and agency. Don’t say ridiculous things like “Egyptians want military rule, did they forget already?”—this is bullshit. Revolutions are complex. Many actors are involved. Many people wanted early elections and they got them. Was it ideal the way it happened? No. But it’s not the “death of democracy.” There is no ‘return of military rule’ because military rule never left.

If you’re confused about what’s going on, ASK. Don’t make snide comments and flippant degrading remarks. There are 90 million+ Egyptians. Ask. One.)

(Another side-note to Egyptians who are anti-Morsi: the classist, insulting language and discourse being used to target and delegitimise pro-Morsi protesters is disgusting & polarising. No, the Ikhwan shouldn’t be thrown in jail or kicked out of the country. They shouldn’t be arrested. Their channels shouldn’t be shut down. They’re not ignorant or uneducated. Seriously, move on.)

What has happened in Egypt is the height of democracy, a revolution of millions to directly topple the ruler.  As for the military displacement of Morsi, this was nothing but a foregone conclusion, once the military institution saw that the masses had already settled the issue in the streets and squares of Egypt.  Al Sisi did on July 3 2013 what Tantawi did before him on February 11 2011; he acquiesced to the will of the rebelling populace, not out of any patriotism or revolutionary fervor, but out of fear of the revolution.  For if al Sisi had not intervened to dislodge Morsi, the revolution would not have stopped with the overthrow of Morsi and the Brotherhood, but was – and still remains – competent to transform into a complete social revolution which would oust the entire capitalist state, including the leaders of the military institution. (Sameh Naguib)

Till things become clearer, the revolution lives on. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.

And there’s also doubt now. Maybe it shouldn’t have happened this way? Or maybe I’m being influenced by the overwhelmingly negative reactions from outside, from people who are usually in solidarity with Egyptians? But what’s happened has happened. What next?

Women, the Arab Revolutions, and Dabashi

A few days ago I began reading Hamid Dabashi’s new book: The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. Dabashi essentially proposes a new paradigm of understanding geopolitics today, namely that the colonial/postcolonial ideologies have run their course, and that the Arab Uprisings were a new way of understanding the world. In the last part of the book, he speaks a bit about gender and the uprisings.

He begins by reminding us of the image of Arab women before the uprisings: passive, docile, incarcerated inside a repressive religion, denied a public presence: “they were invariably portrayed in cages, desperately peering out through the bars – and this by women’s studies scholars and publishers and the publishers of fake memoirs of Arab princes and honour killings alike” (p. 183). He goes on to say:

Even when they were coming out in their millions in Iran to participate in public rallies, there were still some among the Arab, Iranian and North American ‘left’ who ridiculed their dresses, sunglasses or scarves – not having an inkling that their sisters were about to join them from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other (p. 183).

Now consider the pictures of these women defying the odds, domestic and foreign, defying tyranny, homegrown and imposed; look at them closely. Half of them would be denied the dignity of choosing their own clothes from one end of Europe to the other – particularly those who choose the veil in France, Germany or the Netherlands, upsetting the racist sensibilities of European mass murderers like Anders Breivik. These women would be denied full citizenship in Europe and yet they are at the forefront of a world-historic succession of revolutions in the Arab and Muslim world. That alone should tell us where the world is today (p. 183).

At the time of the Egyptian revolution, I was in the process of doing my second MA, and instantly thought of doing it on “women and the revolution” (how naive I was). Following the revolution in the media made it seem as though gender was THE defining issue. Channel after channel, article after article asked “where are the women?” This question continuously confused me, since the pictures, videos, live-streams and tweets repeatedly and clearly showed that there were women everywhere: from the front lines to the make-shift hospitals; from the activists to the organizers. This did not seem like a gendered revolution in the sense of men being in public while the women stayed at home (it’s amazing how durable this orientalist clichés are).

I went to Cairo for several months to do my fieldwork and, of course, every single protester I interviewed had no idea why I was asking questions about gender. “Of course women were part of the revolution” was pretty much the answer I got every single time. When I would ask if they were surprised that women participated, I would again get strange looks. “Why would that be surprising?” was the standard response. This was a wake-up call for me, as I realized the extent to which I had internalized western media representations of the Arab uprisings. To the people I know in Cairo, it was not at all shocking to see women there – they had expected that. It was more shocking for them to see different social classes. Yet this wasn’t the picture I got living in Holland and watching the revolutions unfold on multiple media platforms.

Dabashi continues:

These women did not appear out of nowhere. That ‘the war on terror,’ predicated on a whole history of Orietalism, had manufactured a docile image of Arab and Muslim women, waiting to be ‘liberated’ by the US army, the way they were liberated in Afghanistan and Iraq, was not their problem. This was the treachery of a propaganda machine fed by native informers and career oppurtunists. Arabs and Muslims were now risking their lives for their collective liberties in a manner that the world (awash with Islamophobic and Orientalist nonsense) was unprepared to witness (p. 185).

My question is the following: since this is not the first time that Arab and Muslim women have participated in social movements, why did Dabashi expect the Arab uprisings to change the Orientalist and Islamophobic images of Arab and Muslim women all over the globe? He almost seems to be suggesting that the uprisings changed these views of Arab and Muslim women; but did they?

Dabashi does later on clarify that Arab and Muslim women did not suddenly become active during the uprisings:

We should not disregard the reality that successive generations of women’s rights pioneers, social historians, imaginative theorists, community organizers, public educators, political activists, revolutionary leaders, poets, filmmakers and artists have paved the way for their daughters in Tahrir and Azadi Square. Generation after generation – in both colonial and postcolonial eras- women have entered the public space and changed it; in so doing assigned gender roles have been consistently challenged.

This is an extremely important (and refreshing) point. Arab and Muslim women didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere, just as the revolutions didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere. Both were the result of accumulating and built-up discourses and actions within Arab societies that eventually allowed for the high level of participation that was seen on the part of women.

Linking the role of women in these uprisings to previous activism and feminist organizing in Egypt is very important, and provides essential context to understand the situation of women in Egypt. It seems that more work like this needs to be done, from both a feminist perspective as well as a political, economic and sociological perspective. While women did participate extensively in the uprisings, it is clear that feminist activism has now taken a back-seat in Egypt. This seems to be a process that happens repeatedly in post-revolutionary nations: women participate and are then side-lined when they begin to articulate their own demands during the process of state-building. How to move past this? What kind of solutions are there to these issues? Do we keep delaying the ‘feminist project’ until the new government is solidified? My answer would be NO. The feminist project should not be de-linked from the phase of rebuilding the nation and institutions after a revolutionary process. The two must go together, otherwise women will, yet again, be told to go home after the post-revolutionary euphoria dies down.

The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.

Why I don’t like the “Arab Spring” label

Since the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, various countries in the Middle East & North Africa have experienced uprisings by the people against entrenched dictatorships. This series of uprisings has been labelled the “Arab Spring,” which now appears to be a widely-accepted term. It is even being used at conferences and in academic settings, despite the problematic nature of the term.

There are 2 reasons why I don’t use the label. First, the word “Arab” by definition excludes many groups and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It was arguably Iran, in 2009, that set the precedent and built the momentum for the uprisings that were to happen in Tunisia and Egypt; and yet by using “Arab Spring” we are automatically excluding Iran from consideration. Another group that is excluded are the Kurds, who do not necessarily identify as Arab, yet have been struggling for a very long time to achieve political, social and economic rights in various different countries. Are their struggles not part of the uprisings happening in the ME and NA?

The second reason I am against the term is because of its origin. It was basically coined by mainstream American media, and seemed to imply that the Arab world was finally waking up from apathy and laziness, to a “new Spring.” This discourse basically sees people in the Middle East as apathetic to democracy, human rights, change, etc, and reminds me of the infamous “Arab exception” – the widespread belief in academia that Middle Eastern countries possess structural barriers that prevent them from being democratic (and by structural it is implied cultural and religious, of course). Soon after the Islamists began winning seats in elections in both Tunisia and Egypt, the mainstream western media coined another term: “Islamic winter.”

I was browsing Twitter one day a few months ago when I saw an interesting suggestion from a Palestinian activist (don’t remember who exactly now): why don’t we refer to the struggles across the Middle East as intifadas? There is no doubt that the Palestinian intifadas were important in inspiring many young Middle Eastern people to challenge their own corrupt regimes. Moreover, the word intifada simply means “uprising” – which is exactly what these struggles are. By using the label intifada, we can be inclusive to different groups in the Middle East, and at the same time stop using terms such as Arab Spring, with all their Orientalist baggage.

I recently attended a conference in Cairo entitled “Narratives of the Arab Spring.” A very prominent Iraqi women’s studies scholar, Nadje el-Ali, raised the problematic nature of the term “Arab Spring.” She mentioned the origins of the term as well as that many Kurds she spoke to felt left out because of the word “Arab.” Her point really made me reflect on the importance of labeling and the inclusionary/exclusionary nature of language. When we say Arab instead of Middle East, so many groups in the ME are left out; and the same happens when we say “Islamic world” instead of Middle East.

Since hearing Nadje’s point, I have consistently referred to the struggles happening in the ME and NA as uprisings or intifadas. I have also tried to see the struggles from a comparative perspective in order to offer more solidarity to groups in the ME that have been long marginalized by major Arab countries such as Egypt. Little attention is given to Iran or to the Kurds, for example, and this is very problematic. Another important groups is the Copts in Egypt, who are facing more & more insecurity as certain strands of Islamism gain ground. One cannot call for freedom, equality, and dignity for some groups and not others. Indeed the only way to fight a system that is so strong is through solidarity, and the only way to do this is to see our struggles as linked and to support one another.