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.

__________________________________

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.

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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 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.

Frantz Fanon & Revolution

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was in Cairo, where for some odd reason I can’t access wordpress.com. I’m back in Holland now, and will be updating the blog with everything I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks 😀

Here is a post I wrote a few weeks ago:

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I just read an interesting article about Frantz Fanon’s relevance to today’s revolutions happening across the Middle East and North Africa. Fanon was heavily involved in the Algerian struggle for independence, in which more than 1 million Algerians lost their lives because of the French.

In his epic work “The Wretched of the Earth” Fanon warned of the corruption of regimes that would follow independence in Africa and the Middle East, under the mantles of “nationalism,” “Pan-Africanism” and “Pan-Arabism.” Most examples I can think of in Africa and the ME did fall into this trap – the first leader following independence had tremendous authority, because he was the first independent leader (of course they were never independent, we now know).

Fanon also spoke about the role western powers would play in propping up corrupt regimes and cultivating clientelistic relationships with local proxies. By so doing they would prevent the growth of genuine democracy. As the author of the article notes:

He was right again. It is no coincidence that, with the exception of Gaddafi (who is also the only dictator against whom the west has intervened thus far), the regimes that have been the target of protests in recent months have invariably been close allies of western powers, principally America.

Finally, Fanon wrote about the role the people can play in overcoming their oppression. Rather than seeing people as lacking agency or any power, he wrote that they have the capacity to fight.

The more the people understand, the more vigilant they become, the more they realize in fact that everything depends on them and that their salvation lies in their solidarity.

This was something he saw in Algeria:

The Algerian people, that starved…mass of men and women…have resisted the tanks and the planes, the napalm and the psychological warfare, but above al, the corruption and the brainwashing, the traitors and the ‘national’ armies.

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.

Zizek on the Revolution

I’ve been watching and reading a lot of Slavoj Zizek in the past month, and I really believe he is one of the most influential philosophers of our time.  I just finished an article he wrote about the London riots, in which he mentioned Egypt:

Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists.

The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor, who were largely absent from the spring protests, onto the streets. There is likely to be a new explosion, and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists?

These are very interesting statements.  I definitely agree that the revolution died this summer, mostly because the military managed to mane sure Tahrir lost public support, while it reaffirmed its status as the ultimate Egyptian institution.  This is not to say the revolution can’t be reignited. But for now, I agree that it appears to be dead.

The recent events in Israel seem to benefit both the Israeli government (who have been mercilessly attacking Gaza ever since) and the Egyptian army (who have diverted Egyptian attention away from internal issues to the “Israeli threat” – a tactic often used by Mubarak, who knew how Palestine could always gain the attention of the Egyptian people. However, what is new is the Egyptian decision to withdraw its ambassador from Israeli over accusations of 5 Egyptian soldiers being killed by Israeli forces. This is big. But the announcement was withdrawn from the Egyptian military’s website, so it is unclear what will happen.

I also agree with Zizek that an economic revolution will come soon. People are still hungry (literally and metaphorically) and will not settle for the status quo for much longer. This revolution will be global. We have seen it in London, Spain, and Greece recently. In the Netherlands, as the government cuts more and more, we will also probably (at some point in the far future) see big demonstrations. However, countries like the Netherlands are further away because they have absolute trust in the government and governing institutions (including capitalism) and thus it will take longer for them to question these. This is the impression I get from Dutch people I have spoken to about the issue: they still do not see capitalism and neo-liberalism as the core structural problems. Rather they tend to blame Greece, immigrants, America, or whoever else is currently “causing problems.”

I like the fact that Zizek mentions the “secular left” in Egypt, as opposed to only focusing on the Islamists as the only alternative to the military. This is something I do not see in the majority of European/American articles about the revolution. The secular left can be a very strong force in Egyptian politics, given the chance and time to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood have been around since the 1920s: they are well-organized, well-funded, and know how to deal with the Egyptian state/military. This is not the case for the secular left, or other political groupings in Egypt.

My next post will be on what Zizek said about the London riots – definitely the most insightful comments I’ve read so far.

I was in Tahrir

Friday prayer

Yesterday Egyptians called for a million-man march to protest against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the head of the military, for several reasons, including the continuing arresting of protesters, the slow process of putting the previous regime on trial, and the general lack of action.

I arrived in Cairo on Thursday night and to my surprise my dad was fine with us going to Tahrir – I was pretty sure he would say no because of safety issues, since last week police attacked people in Tahrir with lethal tear gas & molotov cocktails. But since hundreds of thousands were expected, he was sure nothing would happen.

I can’t really explain how I felt walking into Tahrir. I studied at the American University in Cairo, which is located in Tahrir, and so for 4 years I spent most of my days there, around that square. But now it symbolized something completely different: freedom, autonomy, choice, justice, activism. Seeing the tents, hearing the chants, seeing the flags and the patriotic t-shirts – it hit me that Egypt had done something amazing.

Half an hour later it hit me that Egypt continues to do something amazing. The revolution started on January 25, and is still going on on July 8. People have not given up. It’s not over. People are not scared. They have fought too hard and lost too much for them to allow it to slip away.

The military cannot and should not rule the country. Why are protesters being tried in military courts, while Mubarak and co are being tried in civilian courts? Where are the police, and why haven’t they been reformed? What is the plan re. the economy? Many questions, and SCAF has not provided any answers.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands were in Tahrir, 2 million in Alexandria, hundreds of thousands in Suez, and thousands in other cities across the country. It was a nation-wide statement: the people are not happy.

And if we learnt anything from Jan 25, it is that what the people think counts now.