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Various news outlets circulated a story on 2 July about the killing of a young man from Suez, allegedly at the hands of bearded men who stabbed him “for walking with his fiancee.” This story comes after a series of similar news stories about bearded men attacking hairdressers and harassing unveiled women in the streets, in addition to other reports about the prevention of Copts from praying in some areas.
Such stories have proliferated on the Internet in concomitance with the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy to the presidency. These stories reflect justifiable fears that Salafi-oriented Islamists might be exploiting the rise of the first Islamist president to power to spread their influence on society and exercise different forms of assault and intimidation.
It might be impossible to tell which of these stories are true and which are mere rumors fueled by mounting fears of Islamic extremism among middle-class urban dwellers and lower classes. It may be said, though, that Morsy’s victory in the election has emboldened some Islamists, who now believe that “the country is theirs,” to harass people.
Addressing these incidents or rumors as if they are entirely disconnected from what has been happening in several parts of the country for years — when Islamists were not in power — is misleading, to say the least. Egyptians were exposed to all sorts of harassment and violations of their freedoms during former President Hosni Mubarak’s reign. Sectarian harassment is a daily concern that millions of Copts across Egypt have to cope with. Egypt’s police state has long sponsored diverse types of harassment and sectarian violence in several popular neighborhoods and in rural areas, most especially. State security was quite aware of the sectarian sermons propagated by some Salafi sheikhs and perhaps even supported them. After all, despotic regimes feed on the abuse and intimidation of weaker social groups, and thrive on people’s fears.
In fact, the state did not spring to the defense of women and Copts throughout Egypt, nor did security bodies take a firm stance against Islamists’ harassment of students at Egyptian universities. Confrontations with Islamist groups only began after those groups went beyond their unthreatening practices of social regulation to outright defiance of the ruling power. All forms of harassment, suppression and sectarian incitement never bothered security apparatuses except on rare occasions, which the regime used to deal blows to political Islam.
There is a reason why the middle and upper classes were the most reactive to the alleged incidents of harassment mentioned above, as though such incidents were a novelty to a society that is essentially linked to the rise of Islamists to power. The fact that these segments have turned those alleged incidents into public opinion cases is a legitimate defense of their pattern of life and is intended to pile pressure on the new president.
My purpose here is not to defend Islamists or to absolve them of responsibility, for they are responsible for practices of sectarian incitement and for feeding the conservative, fascist mood of the public. Equally important, though, is the understanding that Islamists are a social and political product that express reactionary and conservative inclinations within Egyptian society.
The problem is that Islamists embrace conservative values and despotic cultural and social structures; hence, they play a crucial role in besieging society and aborting any possibility for its liberation. That is why Islamists have never contested the nature of the prevailing socio-political authoritarianism, but have sought compromise with the police state, which might explain their ability to survive and grow over the many years of despotism. In fact, the years of stagnation and the state’s obstruction of social mobility have created a fertile environment conducive to the Islamization of society, and perhaps also the state, and paved the way for a strong rise for Islamists.
But the question remains: Will the Islamists’ rise to power cause that fascist mood in society to grow? The answer lies in the extent to which they are ready to make concessions on ideological and political levels. The pressure heaped on them by opposing political and social powers forces them to make ideological sacrifices, and the Brotherhood in particular is ready to make substantial concessions to gain more power.
The real challenge for the Brotherhood, however, is the group’s ability to craft a dual discourse. The first is directed at the middle and upper classes to assure them that their personal freedoms will not be tampered with. The second is aimed at the marginalized segments that are more vulnerable and will continue to be harassed by security bodies and Islamists as a means to discipline and control them. Besides, an alliance between the bourgeoisie and Islamists, with the aim of controlling the popular masses in the name of religion, will cause the Brotherhood to face off with a large public.
The ability of the masses to achieve liberation is tied to the ability of progressive powers to work with those masses to expand their understanding of liberation as one that surpasses the acquisition of personal freedoms, and encompasses the exercise of economic and social rights in the face of the new rulers, who are expected to continue the suppression of the already repressed lower classes.
Akram Ismail is a columnist and a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.