Sexual Politics in the Middle East

Recently there have been a few articles that discuss sex and women in the Middle East, including Mona el Tahawy’s piece in the New York Times. In response, many critical feminists critiqued the focus on sex and sexuality, arguing that it further reified Middle Eastern women as not only oppressed, but mainly oppressed in terms of their sexuality. One piece in particular points to the ways in which sexuality has become definitive of women’s liberation. Rafia Zakaria writes: “The emphasis on sexual freedom permitted the taming of radical feminism to fit the capitalist society from which it emerged. If sex was understood as a commodity that women were choosing to consume, then its problematic aspects could be disguised.” Zakaria looks back at texts from feminists in the 1970s who did not divorce sex from politics – something that seems to be more the case today. This reminded me of a book I read recently by Shulamith Firestone – one of the leaders of the radical feminist movement – called “A Dialectic of Sex.” While she makes many excellent points, her book remains ethnocentric and heavily relies on a Freudian analysis of sexuality that can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

This has all been part of a larger debate that has been going on for decades. Middle Eastern women have often been represented as being oppressed by men and culture. In other words, when we think of patriarchy in this region, we think of it in terms of domineering males who make use of a sexist culture to oppress women. It is no surprise then that autonomy from men, throwing away culture, and a general move towards individualism are seen as the solutions for Middle Eastern women facing patriarchy.

And yet this ignores the fact that patriarchy as a term cannot be defined singularly, and is always historically contingent. What constitutes patriarchal oppression in one era may not constitute it in another; and the same goes for different places. In our current moment, we face the increasing tendency to frame patriarchy as “gender inequality” whereby women are seen as oppressed because they do not have the same rights as men and where they need to be able to become full individuals in order to be liberated. Lean-in feminism is part of this wave, and so are articles that call for women to speak out about sex openly, and to explore their sexuality. This approach looks to women to become fully emancipated by becoming full individuals with equal rights. When the focus is on the Middle East, this gets translated through the older prisms of sexualizating women in order to show just how backwards Middle Eastern men are.

In a recent article, Nadje al Ali addresses the question of how feminism should look at the issue of sexual violence and ISIS. She asks why there is a sudden focus on sexual violence now, when it is perpetrated by ISIS, even though “Iraqi women and men were confronted with sexual and broader gender-based violence in pre-invasion Iraq as well as in the post-invasion period,” (pp. 1). She goes on to write:

I argue that it is important to historicize and contextualize the extreme forms of sexual violence associated with ISIS, not in order to belittle its scale and detrimental consequences but to deepen our understanding about its roots, context and ways to tackle it. With my article I aim to intervene in recent feminist debates of how to approach and explain sexual violence in relation to the Middle East, while also paying attention to the various ways that sexual violence has been instrumentalized by a range of relevant constituencies and political actors.

This struck me for two reasons. First, it is equally relevant as a response to articles that continue to call for “sexual liberation” in the Middle East without contextualizing and historicizing sexual violence. Second, it reminded me of an older debate that took place among Egyptian feminists on the problem with focusing on sexual inequality in a vacuum. It is this debate I want to briefly touch on, and I want to suggest that it could help us answer the question of how to approach the question of sexuality in the Middle East today without being ahistorical, sensational, or reductionist.

In response to the tendency of American researchers to always focus on Egyptian women and sex, various Egyptian feminists suggested that what is needed is for sexual relations to be contextualized within broader structures. Many of the Egyptian feminists positioned sexuality and sexual problems within the broader context of economic, political and social change. Hoda Badran, for example, wrote:

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 feminist, Fathia al Assal, has noted that 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. In both of these reflections we see a conscious effort to connect sexual inequality and liberation to the broader economic structures. It is precisely this type of effort that seems to be lacking today in much of the work being done on sexuality and sex in the Middle East.

This was in response to Angela Davis’ trip to Egypt, of which she wrote:

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.*

In fact she draws a parallel between the obsessive focus on circumcision by Western feminists with their equally pervasive obsession from African American women’s sexuality:

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. 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.

This admission that writing about sexual oppression in Egypt brings with it difficult political questions echoes Nadje al-Ali’s similar concern that when we write about sexuality in Middle Eastern contexts, this can often be instrumentalized. In the past this has seemed to lead to an impasse: do we continue to write about these issues knowing they will be instruementalized? Or do we abandon these discussions completely, knowing that this may delay social change that is badly needed?

Shehida el-Baz was quoted by Angela as saying:

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.

El-Baz goes on to point out that researchers looking at gender in England, for example, focused on topics like “women and politics,” whereas researchers looking at gender in Egypt always focused on the question of sex. It is this divorcing of sex from other social relations and structures, as well as the almost obsessive preoccupation with it, that was problematic then and continues to be problematic today.

It is interesting to see that feminists working today face the same issues that these Egyptian feminists struggled with in the 1960s and 1970s. Nadje al Ali reflects:

Over the past years, I have spent lots of time and energy as an academic and as an activist to argue against the ‘culturalization’ of gender-related issues – particularly with reference to gender-based violence in the Iraqi context. For years, I have felt compelled to say and write: It’s not about ‘their culture’, but it is about political economies. It is about authoritarian dictatorships and conservative patriarchal interpretations and practices. It is about foreign interventions and invasions and their gendered politics. (pp 3-4)

The idea that women in the Third World have to consciously fight a battle on two fronts is a widely acknowledged one. The idea is that on the one hand, there is a battle against patriarchy, often assumed to be “local.” On the other hand, there is imperialism and racism—the most visible form in our current moment being Islamophobia—understood as stemming from Western empire-building. These two battles have positioned women as vulnerable to multiple forms of oppression and as having to constantly navigate different structures. There is little doubt that this touches on a reality experienced by many Third World women and women of colour, namely that experiences are made up of multiple layers and are conditioned by multiple social categories. Intersectionality is the most recent theory to address this. However, I want to ask whether this binary view—of women having to oppose patriarchy and/or racism is a problematic one that does not provide a useful framework for either understanding or resisting oppression. Rather, the binary needs to be broken down and patriarchy and racism need to be seen as co-constitutive. And here it is precisely the debate among Egyptian feminists quoted above that seems to do this – to see racism/imperialism as part and parcel of gender relations, and vice versa.

Reading al Ali’s concern about not over-emphasizing the neocolonial or international at the expense of the national, I found myself identifying with her suspicion that feminists positioned in the West often do not pay enough attention to local forms of patriarchy. Being a mixed-nationality feminist who has lived in both Europe and Egypt, I found myself easily recalling the conditions of European academia and public debate that push feminists to focus on Western power structures and to respond defensively to what are essentially racist attacks. At the same time, I also find myself in the position of having to explain why feminists should talk about Orientalism and imperialism when the “real” threats to women in Egypt come from Islamists, conservatives, and local customs. These two positionalities seem to imply that there are multiple ways of understanding gender oppression in Egypt. What I instead posit is that while there are multiple layers to the story, these layers do not represent easily separable causes or ways of understanding gender relations; rather they indicate precisely the ways in which race, gender, class, and other social categories constitute one another and in this way produce gender relations.

In other words, while we seem to posit a split between international structures of power versus national structures of power, I wonder if this has always been the case. I would be very interested in exploring more work by Middle Eastern feminists from earlier periods to try and see how exactly they conceptualized these national and international structures, and how they navigated these layers. In the quotes above, there does not seem to be a denial of patriarchy in Egypt, nor of conservative religious discourse or problematic cultural traditions. But these are always contextualized – they are always to be understood as the result of processes that are neither just national or international. It is not a blame game of blaming either “local patriarchy” or “imperialism.” It is more complex than that – it is about the dialectic between the two.

In a sense I think Nadje al Ali answers her own question – one most of us have struggled with – brilliantly, when she points out that understanding sexual violence in the Middle East always necessitates contextualizing and historicizing what is happening. In this sense, it is neither about focusing obsessively on sex, talking about sex, having sex, or sexual violence; nor is it about ignoring that sexual violence and sex exists in the Middle East. It is about talking about it in a different way – and for that maybe we need to look to feminists of the past.

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* In the 1970s, Angela Davis visited Egypt. These excerpts are from a chapter in her book Women, Culture and Politics.

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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?

The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

Voting and the question of meaningful change

Just now I was browsing through my favourite news site (commondreams.org) and I realized most of the pieces are on the US election. Commondreams is a more leftist site, and so most of these articles tend to be pro-Obama. It got me thinking, for the millionth time, why so many American progressives/leftists are ignoring all of Obama’s faults in a series of desperate bids to win him this election? We get it: Romney would be worse. But Obama is far from what these leftists/progressives stand for. To many outsiders, it seems like the US system just keeps reproducing itself with a new face every 4-8 years. Whether that’s Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Romney, it’s likely that the US will continue to be a negative force in the global geopolitical arena, with wars, drones, and continued economic dominance over other countries.

Then I started thinking about Egypt’s last presidential election, between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. And realized I was kind of being a hypocrite. During that election, which many Egyptians saw as having to choose between two horrible candidates, it was traumatic to have to support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the regime the 2011 revolution tried to bring down. And the question that kept coming up was: WHY? Why are we in this position, one year after having a revolution? Why do we have to choose between these two candidates when we know Egypt has so much more to offer?

The answer is that the system is too strong. In the US and in Egypt, widespread discontent with policies are not enough to bring about change. In Egypt even a revolution wasn’t enough to ensure that we could choose between more than just two Mubarak-era figures. The US seems to be in a similar situation, where the system is proving to be much stronger than the people. In the end, we are left with these ‘choices’ that are supposed to convince us that we live in a ‘democracy.’ But really, what’s the difference? Is Shafiq that different from Morsi? Were either of them actually going to bring about social justice, dignity, bread and freedom – the main demands of the revolution? Are either Romney or Obama going to create an economic system in the US that is fair and just? Are they going to end discrimination? Are they going to prevent the US from continuing to be an imperialist force int he world that brings death and destruction to countless people? Or are the institutions and class interests too strong to be influenced by the people through a system of voting?

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre,

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.”

I’ve heard countless people say “Not voting means giving up your power.” Really? What power, exactly? Can’t the act of voting itself be seen as giving up one’s power?

I remember myself clearly telling people that Morsi was horrible, but he was better than Shafiq. It was better to have someone like him than to bring the regime back to power. And I guess that’s what many American leftists are doing by supporting Obama: pointing out that while Obama has faults, Romney would be much worse.

But is this it? Is this just the reality of politics? We accept the fact that we actually don’t have power, and that decisions are made behind closed doors? Accept the fact that even revolutions aren’t always powerful enough to change things?

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.

The Issue of Framing

 

 

I find the issue of framing endlessly fascinating. How are events, people, & actions framed as they happen, and which discourses on those events/people become the most used, repeated & reproduced discourses? Which narratives become popular, and which don’t? And why?

To take the example of the Egyptian revolution, it’s very clear, over a year later, the ways in which the revolution has been framed. Two major frames in particular stand out: the Islamists, & women. Almost every debate I go to, every documentary I watch, and every article I read, discusses the revolution using these two dominant frames. What role will the Islamists play/how dangerous are they/what can we do to stop them AND/OR where are the women in “new Egypt”/how is Egyptian culture holding women back/how come the revolution was stolen from women? And so on and so on. And of course the ultimate mega-frame is when the Islamists & women are used together: so what effect are the Islamists having on women’s rights, for example.

Not only do such approaches homogenize groups such as “Islamists” or “Egyptian women,” which have many, many internal nuances; they also lead to a situation where the revolution cannot be discussed outside of these frames. Everyone must talk about these issues to be taken seriously.

In her brilliant article (here), Maya Mikdashi says the following:

This year, the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world have brought into focus some dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized.

The article shows three ways in which gender is being used to frame the Arab uprisings.

One is the equation of gender with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Two is the fear of Islamists. Three, is the use of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries.

We have seen journalists and academics write about “protestors” without mentioning gender until they get to the “female protestors.”  When we read of these “female protestors” are we to assume that all previous analysis of “protestors” has been about men? If so, why does this not factor into analysis? Are men not gendered? Is citizenship an ungendered and undifferentiated category except when talking about female citizens? If we believe that an attention to gender is important to understanding how women live their lives, then why not extend the same courtesy to men?

The important question we need to ask is essentially about power:

What power dynamics and hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective deployment of “gender” in the media and in every syllabus on “politics” or “citizenship” that includes one or two weeks (yay!) about “women” or “gender?”

The same goes for Islamists. What power dynamics & hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective use of “Islamists” in the media/academic world?

 As Islamists gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria concerns over their potential gender policies continue to fester. While such concerns and interest are certainly important, why do they gain such momentous traction only when it comes to Islamists? After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?).

Mikdashi’s point is excellent: hasn’t it been the SECULAR Arab state that has oppressed women & LGBTQs until now, not the Islamists? Yet we are terrified (the we here refers especially to liberals) of what the Islamists *might* do. It is normal, of course, to question Islamists & their policies; but why in such a frenzied manner?

Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do with Islamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.

The final frame Mikdashi discusses is the use of LGBTQs & women to judge how “good” or “effective” the uprisings have been, which is essentially a new form of pinkwashing.

The legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.”

Again, the problem is not the questions these frames raise, but the manner in which they are raised; the power relations behind them; and the fact that they are constantly the manner in which the uprisings are discussed.

These frames are highly selective and politicized. Furthermore, each reproduces and invites practices of patriarchy, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, and colonialism. By using these frames gender justice is divorced from struggles for economic and political justice, and the revolutionary potential of this three way marriage is once again smothered.

To finish off, I want to share an experience I had last week at a film festival here in the Netherlands. The documentary was about the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia & Lebanon, and right before there was a panel discussion. The focus of the entire discussion was 1) the Islamists and 2) women. I kept wondering why I felt so uncomfortable with this. Weren’t these real issues?

After reading Mikdashi I realized why. Yes, of course they are real issues. But they are not the only issues, and they are not the frames through which we need to understand the uprisings. Moreover, we need to be aware that in western contexts, the issue of Islamists, women and LGBTQs are brought up for different reasons: to, yet again, show how culturally backwards the rest of the world is.

The counter-revolution continues

Yesterday evening, very disturbing reports started coming out of Port Said, a town in Egypt where a football game between the Port Said team and el-Ahly team was happening. Reports indicated that right when the game ended, football fans stormed the pitch from different directions and began attacking the el-Ahly team and supporters. The night ended with 75 deaths and more than 1000 injuries. These numbers are shocking, heartbreaking, and disturbing. What is even more disturbing is the fact that this event was pre-planned.

One indication of this is the fact that el-Ahly ultras have supported the revolution since the beginning and have always been at the forefront of battles in Tahrir, Mohamed Mahmoud, and other hotspots. Many commentators have suggested that what happened is basically revenge on the part of the police and army.

Another indication is the fact that the police and army did nothing, despite being present. It was only after the 75 deaths and 1000 injuries that the army intervened. Moreover, the attackers had weapons such as guns, knives, and other types of arms that football fans are not allowed to bring into the stadium.

Others have suggested that this is SCAF’s way of creating chaos in order to justify their staying in power and possibly reinstating the emergency law that was lifted one week ago. These deaths come after days of instability where banks in Cairo were robbed in broad daylight and crime has increased. This tactic of creating chaos in order to assert the need for increased authoritarianism is one that has been used and re-used by the Egyptian regime.

Whether the football massacre was revenge on the part of the police & army or a plan to create a sense of chaos in the country, it is clearly yet another move in the chess game that is being played between the revolutionaries and the counter-revolution.But SCAF may have gone too far this time. Most of the people that died last night were very young. Their pictures are all over the internet today. There are protests all over Cairo, and tomorrow is Friday. People are angry, and this is not going to go away. Whether the military planned this or failed to stop it – they are guilty. This may be the event that will reignite the revolution and finally pushes it to get rid of the regime completely.

I really believe that this revolution was too peaceful. We did not get rid of the regime, we got rid of its face. The military sacrificed Mubarak in order to stay in power, and so nothing has really changed. If the revolution had been violent, and made a point, the military wouldn’t be doing the things it is doing now. The more peaceful we try to be, the more deaths we will have from our side. We need to end this regime, once and for all.

RIP to all those that died last night.

Read an eye-witness account here, and a report here.

Global solidarity

What I find absolutely fascinating about everything happening in the world today is how connected our systems of oppression are. The Arab uprisings that have happened in 2011 were inspired by the Iranian Green Movement and the Palestinian intifadas; the Occupy Wall Street movement was inspired by the Arab uprisings; and the global Occupy movements were inspired by Occupy Wall Street. The fact that similar uprisings with similar demands are happening all over the world should tell us something about the nature of our oppression. In Egypt we are not being oppressed in a vacuum. Mubarak was not an isolated dictator. Rather he was a tool of a neo-colonial, capitalist, patriarchal system that oppresses people in every single country.

I just came across a letter from Mexico to Egypt, expressing their solidarity with the revolution:

This demand by the people is just and legitimate, and we know very well how the governing elites of the towns will answer, they don’t care about our demands, they only care to maintain power, especially when you’re demanding the end of military rule.
The dignified and rebellious people of Oaxaca show our solidarity with the more than 46 assassinated (people of Egypt) and we say don’t be intimidated by the force of the police and military state.
Know that our eyes see in your eyes your indiginity, and our conscience together will show the way to decide how we want to live and this gives peace and justice to the comrades who were assassinated by the tyrannical government.
We would like to be physically present with you comrades but we can’t go there because in each place there’s something pending to be resolved with the damned government that represses us, kills us, hurts us and jails us, but we still send you our best energy that will contribute to fortify the heart and the necessary wisdom to continue with your fight.
Put your wager on changing the base and do not depend on government structures to decide our destiny, and the solidarity that cloaks the people of Egypt is the same as that which cloaked Oaxaca in 2006. Go onto the street and proclaim that there is a different way to live.
(Full letter here.)
This amazing letter is beautiful and inspiring, as well as extremely heartbreaking. But it makes me feel like as long as there are people out there who continue to struggle and fight against all types of oppression, so should I.