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.